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Who to choose as your wedding witnesses

Your wedding witnesses have a very important job on the big day - so how do you pick them, and what do they actually do?

Even if you have a good idea of who they want to be in your wedding party, choosing witnesses can be a trickier task.

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Wedding witnesses sign the marriage register, along with you and your partner, a practice that happens right at the end of your marriage service after your vows (and readings, if you’re having them). Register office staff cannot act as your witnesses, so even if you’re planning on having a really small wedding, you will need separate witnesses.

Some people consider it traditional to ask the best man and maid of honour. However, given how these roles are themselves moving away from tradition – are you having a bridesman or a groomsmaid? – you really can make up your own rules.

You need wedding witnesses whether you’re having a religious or a civil ceremony, in order to make the marriage legally binding.

Of course, you could leave it until the day and ask strangers off the street to be your witnesses – bold move, but it does happen, particularly at elopements! You’d need to get there with time to spare ahead of the ceremony, in case it takes you a while to find people who are willing and able. If that’s not right for you, read on for our advice on how to choose your wedding witnesses.

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Image | Getty

Who chooses the wedding witnesses?

There’s no strict rule on this – you and your partner could pick one each, or you can make the decision as a couple.

It’s more of a joint decision than choosing the bridal party or groomsmen, so ideally it would be someone who means something to both of you. Much like decorating your aisle and choosing readings, this is a chance to personalise your ceremony.

Do wedding witnesses have to be family?

Wedding witnesses do not have to be family. You can choose whoever you wish, as long as they fit the criteria listed below.

Choosing someone as a witness can be a good way to include siblings in your wedding ceremony if you aren’t close enough for them to be part of your wedding party but you’d still like them to be involved in the day.

Can parents be wedding witnesses?

Some couples choose their mothers as the witnesses, as it gives them a responsibility and helps them feel included in the day. If this doesn’t work for you, there are other ways to make them feel involved, of course.

Mother of the bride
Image | Getty

Can friends be wedding witnesses?

Choosing friends as wedding witnesses is a great way to include them in your wedding day, and would be a fabulous job for anyone who felt too shy to walk down the aisle as a bridesmaid, but would love a role in the day.

“My husband and I chose two of our closest friends to be our witnesses as we wanted them to have an important part in our special day and it was lovely to make them feel more involved,” says wedding planner Alexandra Rose Bulman of Alexandra Rose Weddings.

To make the role extra-special, you could include their names in your order of service.

What does a marriage witness need?

Legally, the only rules you need to abide by are that you must have two witnesses, who are able to understand the language of the ceremony and have the mental capacity to understand the nature of the ceremony. They don’t need to bring anything with them. Wedding witnesses can be any age in England and Wales, but if you have someone in mind who’s under 18, check with your ceremony venue that they’re happy with this. Some register offices and places of worship will ask you to provide an additional witness – so three in total – if one of your witnesses is under 18, or in some cases, under 16. In Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland, your witnesses must both be over 16.

The Wainhouse Barn at Dewsall Court. Image by Kerry Diamond

How many witnesses do you need for a wedding?

A minimum of two – but theoretically, you can have as many as you want. However, two is standard, and if you want to have more, you must definitely check this in advance with your celebrant. The rules on humanist wedding ceremonies differ depending on where you’re getting married – these aren’t currently legally binding in England and Wales, for example. If you’re having a civil partnership, a ceremony is not compulsory.

When do you need to choose wedding witnesses by?

Legally, in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, there’s no strict time to choose a wedding witness by, as Alexandra points out: “You can choose your witnesses as late as on the day of the wedding itself, there is no time frame!”

However given that you want them to stand up in front of the whole congregation, it would be good to give them a fair bit of notice – especially since they’ll need to be seated near the front of the ceremony to save them walking from the back – this is one of the reasons people often choose a member of the wedding party for the role of witness – because they’re already at the front of the occasion.

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In Ireland, you need to give the names of your witnesses when you give notice.