Double Proxy Weddings Boom in the Flathead

By Beacon Staff

In a Kalispell law office conference room, attorney Dean Knapton and temporary judge Steve Nardi filled out a marriage certificate. Knapton was wearing a Dr. Seuss tie and Nardi was dressed for a casual Friday evening.

“Well, what do you want to do now?” Nardi asked.

“Get married,” Knapton said, glancing over at his wife, Jeri.

“Let’s do it,” Nardi said. “Should we have a ceremony?”

Knapton paused momentarily: “I think we better have a little one.”

The Knaptons weren’t tying their own knot. They did that many years ago. Rather, they were serving as fill-ins – or proxies – for a young couple overseas who had paid for the Knaptons’ double proxy services. The groom was a Montana resident who had met his bride-to-be while serving as a missionary in Cambodia.

Nardi took the Knaptons through some rudimentary vows as their son looked on as a witness. Then Dean Knapton dashed out the door to go get official copies of the marriage paperwork made. Nardi had to run too.

“That’s all I can remember from the cheat sheet I use,” Nardi said. “I need to get out of here. My dog’s waiting in the car.”

And like that, a bride and groom, thousands of miles away, were married. The newlyweds likely won’t ever meet the Knaptons in person, though the concept of doing things in person is unimportant in the world of double proxy weddings.

Montana is the only state in the nation where double proxy marriages are legal, though three other states – Texas, Colorado and California – allow single proxy marriages. In a single proxy marriage, either the bride or groom must be present. In a double proxy, neither has to be there.

In 2003, one of Dean Knapton’s clients, the father of a soldier in Iraq, inquired about the possibility of a proxy marriage for his son and Italian girlfriend. The father had heard that Montana allowed double proxy marriages. After a little research, Knapton confirmed the legality of the uncommon ceremony.

In the years following that first 2003 marriage, more and more people began approaching Knapton to inquire about the process. By state law, either the bride or groom must be a Montana resident or a military member on active duty. That means that military members from any state can use Montana’s services, which has helped lead to an explosion of double proxy marriages – especially in the Flathead.

“They can do it without ever stepping foot in the state,” Peg Allison, clerk of Flathead County District Court, said. “It’s pretty fascinating stuff.”

Knapton has filed paperwork for more than 1,000 double proxy marriages since 2003. Today his son runs the business, which has a website at www.montanaproxymarriages.com. The son also acts as the witness during ceremonies while his parents serve as stand-ins for the bride and groom. Jeri Knapton has only recently started serving as a proxy, replacing their daughter who moved away.

The Knaptons’ website says “proxy marriage is a convenient way for people serving our country to obtain a legal marriage certificate without disruption of military service.” The total cost is $800, which covers court fees and costs, mailing charges and attorney fees. The website says proxy marriages filed in Montana are recognized by all branches of the military and every state except Iowa.

But business has slowed down for the Knaptons as more competitors have moved in. When he was “virtually the only game in town,” Knapton said he would average five to 10 proxies per week. He once did 15 in a single sitting with a judge. But now a number of companies offer proxy marriage services. Some are based locally and others are not. The out-of-state businesses use local attorneys to file the paperwork.

Allison knows of about a half-dozen local attorneys who deal with proxy marriages. She said the county used to process roughly 10 proxy marriage licenses a month in 2005. These days, it’s closer to 40 or 60 a month. There are often more single and double proxy licenses hitting her desk than regular marriage licenses.

“It’s crazy,” Allison said. “Every time I look at these numbers I go, ‘Wow, I can’t believe it.’ It’s definitely on the rise.”

Allison estimates that she handles about 90 percent of double proxy marriages in the state, which would mean she handles 90 percent of the nation’s double proxy marriages. A county must have a willing attorney and judge, and Allison said many county clerks choose not to deal with proxy licenses.

“Clerks give them my name,” she said. “We’ve got (proxies) down to a fine art.”

Proxy licenses are time consuming for Allison’s office and she said occasionally there are “unintended consequences,” such as another country not recognizing the marriage. Also, because the brides and grooms are scattered around the world and often one of them is from another country, processing issues arise.

“We end up redoing licenses because these parties will get married by proxy, we’ll send them their original license and certified copies of the documents and they’ll send it back and say, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not how you spell my mom’s name,’” Allison said.
She added: “Every few weeks I get a call from a JAG officer asking, ‘What in the world is a double proxy marriage and is this legitimate?’”

Though a double proxy marriage provides the benefits of a regular marriage, it doesn’t provide the same memories. Out of more than 1,000 proxy marriages, Knapton said he has only had one client request specific vows to be recited at the ceremony. And nobody has ever asked for a memento.

“Oddly we’ve never had anyone ask for a recording or a snapshot,” Knapton said. “You’d think that in all these years somebody would have wanted a recording or photograph.”

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