Randy Nuñez and Sasha Nuñez-Carvalho were married in October while he was quarantined with the corona-virus in San Diego and she was deployed by the Navy, 4,000 miles away, in Europe. Nuñez-Carvalho was drinking at a bar when her fiance, now husband, called to tell her the news.
“It was about 11:30 at night,” Nuñez-Carvalho said. “I walked up to my adviser, and I was like, ‘Hey, I’m married.’ He gave me a ginormous hug and then told everybody and we did a shot in celebration. It was weird.”
“The only thing I was drinking was medicine,” Nuñez said.
The couple had just gotten married via double proxy, a process allowed in Montana for residents and active members of the military. In a double-proxy marriage, a couple signs their right-of-attorney over to two stand-ins who get married for them by signing the marriage license in front of an officiant. Neither member of the couple or even the officiant is ever together in the same room during the wedding. The marriage is legal and recognized in all states, except Iowa. Several other states, including California, Texas and Colorado allow for single-proxy marriages where one member of the couple is present.
Chris and April Coen were the stand-ins for Nuñez and Nuñez-Carvalho, who are both active military in the Navy. He is an air traffic controller, and she is an aircrewman working toward becoming a military medical officer.
The Coens are owners of Big Sky event, a wedding planning company based in the Flathead Valley area of Montana. They specialize in double-proxy marriages, for which they charge $675. The Coens have signed their names on thousands of marriage licenses. During the covid-19 pandemic, Chris Coen said his business has increased 400%. He said they will perform 2,500 double-proxy marriages this year alone.
Once Big Sky event receives all the paperwork and makes sure both parties know they are marrying each other, the Coens meet with their officiant, Erik Maldonado, and sign the marriage license for the couple under the words “Chris Coen for groom’s name” and “April Coen for bride’s name.”
Chris Coen said the pandemic has led to “a lot of active military that are stuck, even on domestic military bases, where they weren’t able to leave the base because of lock-downs. So that’s really where the increase in interest in our service really came into play.”
Double-proxy marriages have been legal in Montana since the 1860s, when young men went to the territory looking for mining work and riches. The law allowed the miners to marry their out-of-state fiancees. But now, the Coens’ business is almost entirely military personnel.
Tom Kennedy of Armed Forces Proxy Marriage in Montana, estimated there are only a few companies doing what he and the Coens are doing in Montana. His company is on track to perform 1,900 proxy marriages, up from 500 last year.
Nuñez and Nuñez-Carvalho were engaged in 2019, so when the pandemic hit in early 2020, they were forced to plan a wedding with covid-19 safety precautions and travel restriction issues in mind.
“Militarywise, it is hundred times more strict,” Nuñez-Carvalho said. “Right now, we’re not able to leave out of a 350-mile radius from our base. If we need to leave out of the 350-mile radius, it has to go high up in the command.”
Nuñez-Carvalho is based in Jacksonville, Fla., Nuñez in San Diego. Just like everyone else in the early days of the pandemic, they were living in limbo. Nobody knew when it was going to be over. The couple has seen each other in person once since Christmas 2019 when they both were on leave. But they managed to set a wedding date for Aug. 22 at an Airbnb in San Diego at what would have been an intimate ceremony.
“And then in July, the Navy says, ‘Hey, by the way, we’re deploying Sasha in about 15 days — on Aug. 1 — I hope you’re ready,” Nuñez said.
They had already paid for their wedding, but no matter. The Navy sent Nuñez-Carvalho to el Salvador with a tentative return of Nov. 10. The couple rescheduled the wedding, hoping they would be able to marry before he came up for orders, around Nov. 9. One of the common reasons military couples seek out proxy marriages is because a couple must be married in order to be “co-located.”
‘NEVER SEPARATE US’
If Nuñez’s orders came in before he was married, the military could send him and Nuñez-Carvalho to opposite ends of the world. And only once those orders, which can last up to three years, are complete can new ones be issued to place him with his wife.
“Once I’m with her, they can never separate us again,” he said.
During her deployment, the couple learned he had the coronavirus and had developed long-haul symptoms. He tested positive for 60 days and had five trips to the emergency room. He also had bronchitis and pneumonia because of the virus.
“She had not only deployment mentality of completing her mission and doing all of her secret stuff,” Nuñez said. “But on top of that, she had to worry about her fiance being alive or not.”
But her deployment was extended and they had to abandon their original wedding plans by early October. There was no way, they said, that she would be approved to see her covid-19 positive partner. Time was running out for them to be in the same place at the same time. The couple wanted to be married quickly and options were dwindling.
W h i l e m a ny co u pl e s turned to Zoom weddings this year and the online marriage process has gained stronger legal recognition after executive orders in New York City, California, Utah, Illinois and New Jersey, that option didn’t work for the Nuñezs. They weren’t sure if a Zoom marriage would be recognized by the military. The states that allow single-proxy marriages; California, Texas and Colorado, also had restrictions that disqualified the couple.
And then one day while doing a routine Google search, one he had done thousand times before, Nuñez saw the Coens’ company.
“I still feel like it was a godsend,” Nuñez said. “I clicked on it, and I was like, this looks like exactly what we need. But I don’t think that this is real.”
Coen spent two hours on the phone making sure the process was real and legal. The process is mostly paperwork. A couple fills out PDF forms with basic information such as names and addresses and gets some of the paperwork notarized before sending the packet back to the Coens. Because of the pandemic, even the notaries have transitioned online, something Chris Coen had been asking the state of Montana to allow for years.
Pat Kinsel, the chief executive of Notarize, says his business has increased 600% in 2020, including 1,200 notarizations for single- or double-proxy marriages since the spring. The increase in technology has taken away one more hurdle and stressor for separated couples.
“By the time customers find out about proxy marriage, they’re usually on their last rope,” Coen said. “They’ve kind of exhausted all other resources. So everybody’s in a hurry.”
And less than two weeks after the first phone call with Coen, Nuñez-Carvalho received that fateful 11:30 p.m. call on Oct. 20, 2020, telling her she was now a married woman, oceans away from her husband on her wedding day.