Every spring and summer couples get married all around the Flathead valley, flocking to Big Mountain, the shores of Whitefish or Flathead Lake, or Glacier National Park to take advantage of majestic local views as a backdrop for their ceremony.
But lately, hundreds of people have been getting married in Montana, and especially in the Flathead, specifically because they don’t have to be here.
Montana is the only state in the country that allows double proxy weddings—meaning stand-ins play the role of the bride and groom and take another couple’s vows for them. The weddings are recognized by all branches of the U.S. armed forces and by every state except Iowa. Thanks to Flathead county attorney Dean Knapton, Kalispell is now one of the main places in Montana where these weddings take place.
Knapton says it started in 2003, when a friend of his asked him to look into doing a double proxy marriage for his son and his Italian fiancée.
The man’s son, David Gaynor, a soldier stationed in Vicenza, Italy, had been sent to Iraq literally overnight, leaving his pregnant bride-to-be alone in Italy. Knapton had never heard of a double proxy wedding, but after researching it with Flathead District Court Clerk Peg Allison, he discovered they were possible. He performed the wedding using Gaynor’s parents as the proxies, having no idea what he was about to start.
“When [Gaynor and his wife] returned to Europe, they were being stopped on street corners,” says Knapton. A story about the double proxy wedding had hit the Associated Press newswires, and had been reprinted all over the world. Others interested in getting married under similar circumstances noticed the story, as did Sam and Barbara Geller, owners of the website www.marriagebyproxy.com.
Before the Gaynor wedding, the Gellers’ website specialized in single-proxy weddings, which are allowed by Texas, California and Colorado and require one of the two to be married be present for the vows. The company catered to people in prison, residents of foreign countries and soldiers. Its only requirement, according to the website, is that the couple had met, in person, at least one time. (The Gellers did not return phone calls from the Independent.)
According to Knapton, when the Gellers read the story about Montana’s double-proxy weddings, they called and asked if he wanted to go into business with them. Basically, the Gellers attract clients, usually through an ad that appears regularly in Stars and Stripes, a newspaper that caters to U.S. soldiers and their families. The Gellers also gather the initial paperwork necessary for the marriage. Knapton then picks up a license from the Flathead District courthouse, finds a judge and his two proxies—usually Knapton’s daughter, Sarah, and her friend, Kyle Kirkland. Knapton himself serves as the witness to the wedding. He says he has the judge perform the ceremony, although it’s mostly for show.
“We’ve always done it that way, and felt that having a judge involved gave it more an air of authenticity, although it isn’t required under the law,” he says.
Since 2003, Knapton estimates he has performed about 200 such weddings. According to Allison at the district court clerk’s office, Flathead County recorded 55 double-proxy weddings from March 1, 2007 to mid-April.
“That’s about one per day,” she says.
Knapton, she adds, was the attorney for nearly all of them.
According to Knapton, the weddings cost the bride and groom $900—$150 pays for Knapton’s legal services, $50 to each proxy, $100 to the judge and $53 to cover the cost of a Montana marriage license. The rest goes to the Gellers and covers any additional expenses.
In April, the Montana Legislature passed HB 361, which requires one party of a double-proxy marriage to either be a member of the U.S. armed forces on federal active duty, or a resident of Montana at the time the application for a license is made. Knapton says the new law hasn’t affected his business one bit, because the overwhelming majority of weddings he’s performed have been for U.S. soldiers.
Sometimes, he says, “They’re in Iraq, in harms way, with their significant other back home, and suddenly it becomes important that they benefit should anything happen.”
Knapton says he also helped marry couples that are both on active military duty, but stationed at different bases or in different countries. He says he married one couple in which the husband was serving in Iraq and the wife in Afghanistan.
According to Knapton, Montana law began allowing double proxy marriages shortly after World War II, and he believes the intent was to allow military marriages like the ones he has been performing. Allison confirms most of the marriage licenses go to military personnel, adding, “Ninety percent of [proxy weddings] are for folks that are in the military, and they’re getting married to foreign women, and/or they’re marrying someone at home. [It’s usually about] someone in need of benefits.
“It almost always boils down to dollars,” she says. “Don’t most things?”