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A guide to marriage

This guide sets out the criteria that must be complied with for a marriage to be legally recognised. In this guide we will sometimes refer to your spouse, which means your husband or your wife.

For a marriage to be legally recognised in England and Wales it must comply with certain legal requirements. Even if your marriage is recognised by your community or religion, it may not be a lawful marriage according to English law.

Whether a marriage is legally recognised or not is very important because this can have significant consequences particularly in relation to finances and property rights. Not having a marriage which is recognised in law can leave you in a financially vulnerable position, for example you may have no claim to stay in the marital home, or no access to financial support from your spouse. It is therefore very important to be clear whether a marriage is legally recognised in England and Wales, and to understand the legal consequences of being married.

This guide sets out the criteria that must be complied with for a marriage to be legally recognised. In this guide we will sometimes refer to your spouse, which means your husband or your wife.

If you are not legally married but live with your partner it is important to be aware that the law does not give you any special legal status. There is no legal recognition of a ‘common law’ husband or wife.  If you have chosen not to marry your partner and are concerned about your financial and property rights see A guide to living together and the law.

Who can marry?

In order to enter a legally recognised marriage the couple intending to marry must be:

  • Not closely related. For example, you cannot marry your brother or sister.
  • Over 16 years old. If you are under 18 years old you will need consent from your parents.
  • Not already married or in a civil partnership.

If any of these criteria are not met the couple will not be able to get married. If, for some reason a marriage ceremony has occurred and one of the above factors apply, then the marriage is considered void. This means that the marriage is treated in law as never existing.

From 29 March 2014, same sex couples can get married in England and Wales.

The civil preliminaries: what do I have to do before I get married

For most marriages, both parties must provide at least 16 days’ notice of the marriage.  You do this at your local register office.  A registrar will take information from you and place a notice on a public board in the register office for 15 days.  The person you are marrying should do the same.

If any member of the public has reason to believe that you should not be married then they can object to the marriage.  If there are no objections then the registrar will provide you with a notice of marriage certificate, which you will need in order to get married.

To find out more about how to give notice, the documents you should take with you and fees, contact your local register office or visit the government services and information website.

If you are getting married at an Anglican church then you do not usually need to give notice of the marriage.  For all other types of religious marriages or civil marriages you must provide 16 days’ notice, otherwise you the marriage cannot take place.

Where can I get married?

To be legally recognised, a marriage ceremony must take place at one of the following places:

  • a register office
  • an approved premises
  • an Anglican Church (i.e. a Church belonging to the Church of England and Wales)
  • a registered building.

A register office is contained usually in an official building of the Local Authority for your area, very often a Town Hall. If you choose to get married here the ceremony must be a civil ceremony, which means that it must not contain any religious content or music (see below).

Approved premises are special places that have been approved by the local authority. They include many castles, stately homes and hotels. If you choose to get married in approved premises you must have a civil ceremony.

An Anglican Church is a church belonging to the Church of England and Wales. Couples will very often have to fulfil certain requirements, religious or otherwise, before the clergy will agree to them getting married in church. If you get married in church the ceremony will be a religious ceremony. This means it will have religious content and music.

A registered building is a building that is registered as a place of worship for religious purpose that is not a church belonging to the Church of England and Wales. Some, but not all, mosques, Hindu temples and Sikh gurdwaras are registered buildings. Synagogues do not have to be registered because different rules apply to Jewish marriages (see below). Local authorities keep lists of registered buildings in their areas and should be able to tell you whether your local place of worship is registered or not.).

Same sex couples cannot get married in an Anglican Church.  Same sex couples can get married in other religious buildings if:

  1. the religious organisation allows same sex weddings to take place and
  2. the building has been registered for the marriage of same sex couples.

The marriage ceremony

Strict rules govern the ceremony itself. These rules depend on whether the ceremony is a civil ceremony, a Jewish or Quaker ceremony, a Church of England ceremony or some other kind of religious ceremony.

It is essential that the rules are complied with otherwise the marriage will not be legally recognised.

Civil Marriages

A civil ceremony can take place at a register office or at approved premises. At the civil ceremony the parties getting married are required to state that there is no reason why they cannot marry, and then exchange vows (say formal words) which can take various forms. The ceremony can include music or readings but these cannot be religious. The ceremony should be conducted by the superintendent registrar and/or the registrar of the registration district in which the ceremony takes place. There must also be a minimum of two witnesses present.

Sometimes a civil ceremony is followed by a religious ceremony. However, it is only the civil ceremony which is legally binding on the couple.

Religious Marriages

 For legal purposes, there are three different types of religious marriage ceremonies. If the correct procedure is not followed the marriage will not be valid.

Church of England marriages must be conducted by a member of the clergy, for example an Anglican Priest, who will register the marriage.  The marriage must take place in the presence of two witnesses and in accordance with the rules of the Church of England.

Quaker and Jewish marriages are recognised differently to other religious ceremonies. For example, there is no need for the marriage ceremony to take place in a registered building, nor to be in public. The marriage ceremony can be conducted according to Jewish or Quaker religious rules. The official preforming the Jewish or Quaker ceremony will register the marriage.

Other religious marriagessuch as Muslim, Hindu and Sikh marriages are required to satisfy additional requirements. The marriage must take place in a registered building. Not all buildings are registered, so it is important to check first with your local authority. If the building is not registered then the marriage will not be legally recognised.

The ceremony itself can take any form, provided that:

  • it is in public
  • there are at least two witnesses present
  • either a registrar of the district in which the ceremony is taking place or an authorised person is present
  • both parties make the necessary declarations, for example, declaring that there are no lawful objections to the marriage

An authorised person is someone who has been certified by the Registrar General, for example, the Imam of the mosque where the ceremony takes place could be certified as an authorised person to conduct or be present at marriages. If there is someone that you wish to conduct, or be present at, your ceremony you should confirm with them whether they are certified as an authorised person. If you have any concerns it is also advisable to check with your local authority or register office.

Religious marriage ceremonies are not recognised in English law unless the civil content and requirements are complied with as well.

If you want to have a religious marriage or other type of marriage ceremony and, for example, the place you want to get married is not a registered building, or the person you want to conduct or be present during the ceremony is not an authorised person, then you will need to have a civil ceremony beforehand to ensure your marriage is legally recognised.

For all legally recognised ceremonies the married couple must be given a marriage certificate.

What if I have only had a religious marriage?

If a religious marriage ceremony only complies with the religious requirements of a particular faith but not with the necessary civil preliminaries and ceremony requirements set out above then the marriage will not be recognised in English law. A woman whose marriage is not recognised in law will be treated as someone who lives unmarried with her partner.

This has very important consequences. A woman in this situation will not be entitled to make a claim for her spouse’s property or finances should the marriage break down (see A guide to financial arrangements after marriage breakdown). She may also not be entitled to stay in the family home if the property (whether rented or owned) is in her spouse’s sole name. If a woman’s spouse dies and the marriage is not legally recognised she may not be able to inherit their property as she would do if the marriage was legal.

I got married overseas, is my marriage valid?

Marriages which have taken place overseas (i.e. outside the United Kingdom) will only be legally recognised in English law if they are legally recognised in the country where they took place and also according to the domicile of the parties. The domicile of a person is the country whose laws that person must comply with in certain matters, such as marriage and divorce law. It usually relates to where you were born and brought up, although it can also relate to other factors.

For example, if you and your husband got married in Nigeria in a legally recognised ceremony according to the laws of Nigeria and were both born, raised and settled in Nigeria, it is likely that your marriage would be recognised in English law.

This is a complex subject and if you are not sure about your domicile it is important to seek legal advice.

Second marriages

Under the law of England and Wales a person commits the criminal offence of bigamy if they marry one person whilst they are married to someone else. If a person marries more than one person and lives with all of their wives or husbands this is called a polygamous marriage, and a person who does this in England and Wales is likely to be committing the offence of bigamy.

This means that if you are married in a legally recognised ceremony in England and Wales, and if your husband or wife is already legally married, then your marriage will not be legally recognised and your husband or wife may be committing a criminal offence.

Alternatively, if you have a religious marriage which is not legally recognised and your spouse is already married to someone else, for example your marriage is a second Islamic marriage recognised in Islamic law, your spouse will not be committing a criminal offence, but your marriage will not be legally recognised and you may be vulnerable to the difficulties mentioned above with regards to finances and property.

If your marriage took place overseas and your spouse is already married then your marriage may be recognised as legal in England and Wales providing that your marriage was legally recognised in the country in which you got married and neither you nor your spouse’s domicile (see above) is England and Wales. If you are not sure about your domicile it is important to seek legal advice.

Forced marriages

A forced marriage is where one or both people do not, or cannot, consent to the marriage and pressure or abuse is used. If you think you have been forced into a marriage, or you want to know more about forced marriage, see Forced marriage and the law.

A forced marriage is a voidable marriage, which means it can be declared not to exist.

A marriage which is voidable is still a marriage in law until it is annulled (declared to not exist). The process of getting an annulment is similar to that of divorce but, unlike divorce, once a marriage is annulled it puts the parties back into their original position as if the marriage had never taken place.

Unlike divorce, it is not necessary to wait one year from the date of the marriage before applying for annulment. It is important to note, however, that you must start the annulment process within three years of the date of the marriage.

If three years have passed since the marriage and you have not started the annulment process then you will need to get permission from the court to start your application.

Alternatively, you can end your marriage through the divorce process.  See A guide to divorce for further details.

The law is complex and may have changed since this guide was produced.  This guide is designed to provide general information only for the law in England and Wales.   You should seek up-to-date, independent legal advice. 

Rights of Women does not accept responsibility for any reliance placed on the legal information contained in this guide.