IN FAIRFAX, EVEN MARRIAGE COSTS TOO MUCH; CIVIL CELEBRANTS' FEES OFTEN ABOVE LIMIT

Date: 1992-03-03

Washington Post
Author: Jane Seaberry
Patricia Davis; Washington Post Staff Writers

Fairfax County officials appointed solely to perform civil marriages have repeatedly violated state law by overcharging couples as much as six times the $20 fee, turning what was intended to be a public service into a booming, unregulated business

The marriage rites, performed by court-appointed marriage celebrants who function somewhat like the old justices of the peace, account for about 40 percent of the more than 6,000 marriages annually and has developed into a system in which couples must shop around for the best price.

An investigation by The Washington Post that included interviews with dozens of couples and the celebrants who married them revealed that eight of the 11 active celebrants charged fees that ranged from $40 to $125 or higher during 1991.

After inquiries from The Post about the fees, Fairfax Chief Circuit Court Judge Richard J. Jamborsky, who is responsible for monitoring celebrants and who had been aware for at least a year that some had charged more than $20, announced a sweeping overhaul yesterday in fees for civil marriages and where the ceremonies will be performed.

"I feel badly," Jamborsky said, acknowledging that he had moved slowly in dealing with the issue.

The Post's review found that two of the celebrants who overcharged, who hold jobs as court interpreters, each performed more than 500 marriages last year, many of them in hearing rooms in the county courthouse. Other celebrants who charged more than the state-mandated $20 fee include the clerk to the Vienna Town Council and a magistrate.

Under state law, chief judges can swear in an unspecified number of people to perform civil marriages. There are no qualifications for the position and no limit on how long celebrants may serve.

"She asked me to pay $120 in cash, no receipt, anything," said Farzin Saleh, who came to the United States from Iran on June 4 and was married to his fiancee of eight years the next day in the Fairfax County Courthouse by celebrant Irene R. deGair, who works as a courthouse interpreter.

"When you don't know anything about something and you come to a big courthouse where they sit behind a big desk and ask you questions, you just pay," Saleh said. "It was a maximum of five minutes and then it's over."

DeGair denied charging the Salehs $120, but declined to discuss how much she charges to perform civil marriages.

In Fairfax, where 6,320 marriages were recorded in 1990, the largest number in the state, celebrants routinely perform three, four or five marriages in one day, often at private homes, parks, hotels and country clubs. Celebrants, who are not required to account for the number of marriages they perform, almost always require payment in cash. In interviews, many of the celebrants said they charge more than the $20 fee to compensate for travel and other costs to perform civil marriages at sitesselected by couples.

But according to state law, said Virginia Deputy Attorney General Mary Yancey Spencer, the maximum fee allowed is $20, and no charges for time or travel are permitted. She said charging more than $20 is not a crime punishable by a fine or jail term.

Celebrant Clifford I. Barnes, for example, said his charges average $100 an hour for his time and trouble in performing marriages outside of his home. "Everybody knows my prices up front. I'll tell them that in a heartbeat," Barnes said. "There are other people cheaper than I. Let them shop around."

Other celebrants who said they charge varying travel fees include: court interpreter deGair; Orrin R. Magill Jr., a retired employee of the Central Intelligence Agency; Carol Orndorff, a clerk to the Vienna Town Council; Kathleen K. Prem, a clerk with the county electoral board; Edith R. Vittel, an accountant; and magistrate Karl F. Weickhardt. Court interpreter Adriana Hall charged additional fees, according to couples interviewed by The Post, but Hall did not return telephone calls.

According to interviews with couples, Falls Church lawyers My Linh Duong Soland and Vernon D. Gutjahr, and McLean lawyer Conrad J. Marshall do not charge more than the $20 fee.

In Fairfax, couples who want to get a civil marriage are provided with a list of celebrants, but court officials do not advertise the fee set by state law. Nanette Dunnuck and her husband, using the list, shopped around for a celebrant before their July 4 wedding last year.

After one woman on the list told Dunnuck the fee would be $100, and that she would not perform the ceremony at her parents' home in the Fort Hunt area of Fairfax, Dunnuck said, she selected Barnes, who she said told her he would marry them for $90. "I thought I had found a deal," said Dunnuck, 32, when told she was overcharged. "That's outrageous. It's not like we had to walk down an aisle or anything. I know for sure he didn't use the other $70 for gas."

When asked about the $90 fee, Barnes said it was "100 percent correct."

Mildred Best, 47, who said she lives with her retired husband and her mother in her mother's mobile home near Alexandria, said she was told last December by a receptionist at the office of celebrant Weickhardt that he would charge $100 to perform the ceremony in the courthouse. She said she was told Weickhardt would charge $20 for a marriage in his office.

Best said they couldn't afford the $100 fee, so "I took the cheapest way out," she said, and went to his office.

Weickhardt would not comment on Best's claim about his fees. However, he said celebrants are entitled to a reasonable fee for their time.

When she was ready to get married, Donna Jean Robinson, who lives on Richmond Highway, said she and her fiance asked the clerk's office how much a civil marriage should cost. After obtaining their marriage license, she said, deGair escorted them to a courthouse hearing room.

"She said the fee will be $50," Robinson said deGair told her. "She looked at me and said, 'You seem surprised.' I said, 'Yeah, because they told me it would only be $20.' She said, 'Okay then, $20.' So then I give her the $20 and she married us." DeGair would not comment.

Celebrants who said they charge more than state law allows said they deserve the extra money.

"It's not as easy as people think," Prem said. "We find there is more and more of a demand for people who want {marriages} at cemeteries and on boats."

To keep up with the demand, celebrants crisscross the county performing marriages. Some have altered their homes, creating makeshift wedding chapels in their basements and living rooms. Barnes performs civil marriages in a black robe.

"I have a separate phone line in my house," Prem said. "It's almost like your home is a public building . . . . Our names and our homes are public property, essentially. It's like being a real estate agent."

But some celebrants said their fellow celebrants are abusing the system by charging more than $20. "I think it's a violation of the oath that they took," said Gutjahr, who was appointed in January.

In the Washington area, Virginia is the only jurisdiction in which civil marriages are performed in homes, private offices and other places. Couples who get civil marriages in the District and Maryland suburbs are married only in courthouse facilities.

Civil marriages are free in the District, but any donations made to the people performing those marriages go into a trust fund of the court, said Fillmore Lucas Jr., deputy director of the family division at D.C. Superior Court. Civil marriages in Prince George's and Montgomery counties are performed for $25 by clerks who don't keep the fees.

In Fairfax, Jamborsky met last March with the celebrants after receiving complaints about their fees. No changes were made at the time, but the chief judge asked the Fairfax Bar Association to study the issue.

Jamborsky, who supervises more than 23,000 cases a year, said he did not act more quickly because the celebrant issue was only one of a number of issues he was reviewing.

Among the changes announced yesterday, Jamborsky ordered celebrants to stop charging more than the $20 fee, sharply curbed the practice of marriages outside of government facilities and called for appointing more than 50 people to serve as celebrants. Jamborsky said he plans to strip the existing 14 celebrants of their power to perform civil marriages as of April 16.

"It is unfair," Jamborsky said in an interview. "It is a consumer kind of issue that needs to be addressed and regulated.

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