Getting married

Marriage is one of the longest running institutions in the UK. It crosses many cultures and allows for a variety of ceremonies to acknowledge the union of two people. But how does UK law regulate the process of getting married and leading to the legally recognised union of two people.

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Who can get married?

All couples can get married or form a civil partnership in the UK if they are:

  • 16 or over
  • free to marry (ie not already married or in a civil partnership)
  • not closely related

Young people aged between 16 and 17 need parental consent in order to get married. Both parents with parental responsibility must give consent.

Who can't get married?

Anyone under the age of 16 can't legally get married in the UK.

Some relatives aren't allowed to marry and any attempt to marry will make the marriage automatically void. If there is a degree of affinity or they are blood relatives, they will not be allowed to marry. A person cannot marry any of the following relatives:

  • a child, including an adopted child
  • a parent, including an adoptive parent
  • a brother or sister, including a half-brother or half-sister
  • a parent's brother or sister, including a half-brother or half-sister
  • a grandparent
  • a grandchild
  • a brother's or sister's, including half-brother's or half-sister's, child

Adopted children may not marry their genetic parents or adoptive parents, but they are allowed to marry the rest of their adoptive family, including adoptive brothers or sisters.

What is the position for same-sex couples?

Same-sex couples can now legally marry in England, Wales and Scotland - but not in Northern Ireland. Same-sex couples who marry in England and Wales will be treated as civil partners in Northern Ireland. Same-sex couples who marry abroad under foreign law are recognised as being married in England and Wales.

Same-sex couples can either opt for same-sex marriage or civil partnerships. Opposite-sex couples can't form a civil partnership as this is only for same-sex couples.

If a same-sex couple have previously formed a civil partnership (ie before same-sex marriage was legalised in 2014), in England, Wales or Scotland they can convert their civil partnership into a recognised marriage. The costs and procedures for doing so differ slightly between England & Wales and Scotland.

Transgendered people

In England and Wales, a transgendered person can marry someone of the opposite gender or same gender to their acquired gender. A transgendered person will need to apply for and have been granted a full gender recognition certificate by the Gender Recognition Panel. This will reflect their true gender and will be able to marry whomever they so want. Without this certificate, they are legally considered to be the gender they were assigned with at birth.

Process for getting married (or forming a civil partnership)

In the UK, opposite-sex couples can marry in a civil or religious ceremony. Same-sex couples can only get married in a civil ceremony. Same-sex couples can only marry in a religious ceremony if the religious organisation has agreed to carry out same-sex weddings, and the premises for the marriage is registered to marry same-sex couples.

Civil marriages

The couple wishing to have a civil marriage ceremony must give notice of their marriage to their local register office before it can proceed. You must give at least 28 days' notice at your local register office which should include details of where you intend to get married or form a civil partnership. You can contact your local register office to make an appointment. This notice of intention to marry will be publicly displayed, during which time anyone with strong grounds for objecting to the marriage is able to do so. Proof of name, age, nationality and address will be required in order to be able to effectively submit notice. In the case of parties who are divorced or widowed, proof of divorce (eg decree absolute) or death certificate are needed.

Once the 28 days have passed and there are no objections, the civil marriage ceremony can take place which will be in the local register office or local authority approved premises. The marriage will be conducted by someone who is legally authorised to register marriages and vows will be exchanged, although they will not contain any religious references. Once completed, both partners will need to sign the marriage register and witnessed by two witnesses over the age of 16.

Religious marriages

Partners getting married in the Church of England or Church of Wales are allowed to register a marriage at the same time as performing the religious ceremony. Usually notice to the register office is not needed; instead banns (a notice of proposed marriage) are read out in the parish church of each of the partners and in the church where it has been agreed the marriage will take place.

For all other religious marriages, you need to give 28 days notice of the marriage to the register officer.

A religious wedding can take place at a church, chapel or other registered building. Vows will be exchanged between the couples and once completed the couple will need to sign the marriage register in the presence of two witnesses over the age of 16.

What is the difference between civil and religious ceremonies?

Religious weddings generally need to take place in churches, chapels or other registered religious buildings, conducted by the relevant religious officials and in accordance with the specific religious rules and procedures. For example, same-sex couples are not allowed to get married in an Anglican church.

Civil ceremonies can take place in a register office, any venue approved by the local council and certain religious premises. Normally they are performed by a registrar. Although a civil ceremony may include music and readings, it must not include anything of a religious nature (such as hymns or readings from a religious text).

Foreign nationals

If either party is outside the European Economic Area (EEA) or Switzerland and subject to immigration control, they will generally need to obtain a visa to give notice and get married. Take a look at the GOV.UK website for comprehensive information about getting married if either spouse is a foreign national.

Forced marriage

Forced marriages are where an individual is pressured into marrying someone against their will. It is illegal in the and a criminal offence in the UK. Anyone who is at risk of being forcibly married or know of someone who is should contact the Forced Marriage Unit for advice or, in an emergency, the police.

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