In the United Kingdom, opposite sex couples can marry in a civil or religious ceremony.
In England and Wales, from 29 March 2014, same sex couples can marry. Couples who wish to get married can give formal notice of their intention to marry at their local register office from 13 March 2014. Same sex couples can marry in a civil ceremony, but can only get married in a religious ceremony if the religious organisation has agreed to marry same sex couples. Same sex couples cannot marry in the Church of England or the Church in Wales.
In Scotland, from 16 December 2014, same sex couples can marry. Same sex couples who want to marry will be able to give formal notice of their intention to marry to the district registrar. 14 days' clear notice must be given.
Same sex couples cannot marry in Northern Ireland. Same sex couples who marry in England and Wales will be treated as civil partners in Northern Ireland.
From 13 March 2014, same sex couples who marry abroad under foreign law are recognised as being married in England and Wales.
Further information on marriages for same sex couples can be found on Stonewall's website at www.stonewall.org.uk
All couples may marry if they are both 16 years or over and free to marry, that is, if they are single, widowed or divorced, or if they were in a civil partnership which has been dissolved.
Who cannot get married
If you are 16 or 17 you cannot marry without parental consent. Both parents with parental responsibility must give parental consent. In some circumstances, other people may give parental consent. In Northern Ireland a young person under 18 cannot marry without the consent of certain people.
For more information about who can give parental consent, you should consult an experienced adviser, for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by email, click on nearest CAB.
Relatives who may not marry
Some relatives are not allowed to marry. If they do, the marriage will be automatically void even if they do not know they are related. 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 and their genetic parents and genetic grandparents may not marry. If they do, the marriage will be automatically void (see under heading Marriages which are not valid) even if they do not know they are related. Adopted children may not marry their adoptive parents but they are allowed to marry the rest of their adoptive family, including their adoptive brother or sister.
People who are step relations or in-laws may marry only in certain circumstances.
For information about when step relations and in-laws can marry, you should consult an experienced adviser, for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by email, click on nearest CAB.
A transsexual person who has applied for and has been granted a full gender recognition certificate by the Gender Recognition Panel can get a new birth certificate which reflects their acquired gender. In England and Wales, they will then be able to marry someone of the opposite or same gender to their acquired gender, or in Northern Ireland, they will then be able to marry someone of the opposite gender. However, if a transsexual person does not have a gender recognition certificate, they are legally considered to be the gender that is on their original birth certificate.
Engagements are mainly for cultural reasons and have limited status. However, they can be used, for example, in immigration law as evidence of intention to marry.
One of the parties can decide to end an engagement as an agreement to marry cannot be legally enforced. If an engagement is broken, a woman can keep the engagement ring unless, at the time she was given it, the man specifically said that it should be returned if the engagement were broken. Any other property belonging to the couple should be divided between them in the same way as property would be divided if the couple divorced. If the couple cannot agree about entitlement to property, either person can apply to a court to decide the issue, provided this is done within three years of the end of the engagement. Legal advice will be needed in these circumstances.
Pre-nuptial and post-nuptial agreements
A pre-nuptial agreement is a contract entered into before marriage which outlines how a couple wish to divide their money and property if they get divorced. A post-nuptial agreement is similar but entered into after marriage.
Pre-nuptial and post-nuptial agreements are now legally binding unless considered to be unfair by the court.
You should get legal advice if you are thinking about entering into one of these agreements.
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 have been registered for the marriage of same sex couples. Religious organisations or individual ministers do not have to marry same sex couples. Same sex couples cannot marry in The Church of England or the Church in Wales.
A marriage can take place in:-
- a Register Office
- premises approved by the local authority such as a hotel
- a church of the Church of England, Church in Wales, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian or Roman Catholic Church in N. Ireland (opposite sex couples only)
- a synagogue or any other private place if both partners are Jewish
- a Meeting House if one or both partners are either members of the Society of Friends (Quakers) or are associated with the Society by attending meetings
- any registered religious building (England and Wales only)
- the home of one of the partners if the partner is housebound or detained, for example, in prison
- a place where one partner is seriously ill and not expected to recover, for example, in hospital
- a licensed naval, military or air force chapel.
Local authority approved premises
Local authorities in England and Wales may approve premises other than Register Offices where civil marriages may take place. Applications for approval must be made by the owner or trustee of the building, not the couple.
The premises must be regularly open to members of the public, so private homes are unlikely to be approved, since they are not normally open to the public. Stately homes, hotels and civic buildings are likely to be thought suitable. Approval will not be given for open air venues, such as moonlit beaches or golf courses. Generally, the premises will need to be permanent built structures, although it may be possible for approval to be given to a permanently moored, publicly open boat. Hot air balloons or aeroplanes will not be approved.
If you want to get married in local authority approved premises you should obtain a list of premises from the local town hall. In England and Wales, you can search for approved premises on the GOV.UK website at www.gov.uk. In Northern Ireland, you can search for approved premises on the nidrect website.
You can get married by a civil ceremony or a religious ceremony.
In both cases, the following legal requirements must be met:-
- the marriage must be conducted by a person or in the presence of a person authorised to register marriages in the district
- the marriage must be entered in the marriage register and signed by both parties, two witnesses, the person who conducted the ceremony and, if that person is not authorised to register marriages, the person who is registering the marriage.
Civil marriage ceremonies
You and your partner must give notice of marriage in your local Register Office, whether or not you wish to marry in that district. The Superintendent Registrar, or Registrar in Northern Ireland, then issues authority for the marriage and you may marry in any Register Office or local authority approved premises in any district.
In Northern Ireland, it's normal to give eight weeks notice of a marriage. The minimum notice period is 28 days, but this short notice can result in weddings being postponed.
The registrar will issue a marriage schedule - you won't be able to get married without this. If you are having a religious ceremony, it must take place within 14 days of receiving the schedule.
The marriage must take place within 12 months from the date of entry of the notice (three months if one of you is housebound, detained or resident in Northern Ireland). If the marriage doesn't take place within that time, the process must be repeated.
Couples don't need to have been resident in the country before getting married, provided they apply for notice from the General Register Office. If you and your partner are visiting Northern Ireland to be married and are not citizens of an European Economic Area country, you may need to enclose special documentation.
Couples must submit their completed marriage notice forms and any other relevant documents to the Registrar of Marriages in the district where the marriage is to take place.
Procedure for civil marriage
You and your partner will be asked for certain information when giving notice of your intention to marry. Giving false information is a criminal offence. The information which may be required is:-
- evidence of name and address
- evidence of date of birth
- if one partner has been married before or in a civil partnership, documentary evidence that the marriage or civil partnership has ended, for example, a death certificate or decree absolute. Uncertified photocopies are not accepted. A certified copy of a decree absolute may be obtained from the court which decided the divorce. This can take about a week
- evidence of nationality.
A variety of documents can be used as evidence of the information required, but a passport, travel document or birth certificate is usually sufficient. You should contact the register office where you're getting married for more specific advice on what they will accept.
People from overseas may be asked to show their passports. There is no legal requirement to show a passport before getting married and instead, they can produce a birth certificate (accompanied by a certified translation if necessary), an affidavit or other personal identity document.
If you are travelling to the UK to marry either a British citizen or an EEA national, you will need a visa. This is called entry clearance. This will be either a fiancé(e) or proposed civil partner visa if you are not an EEA national or an EEA Family Permit if you are an EEA national.
People who wish to marry in the UK in a Register office in England and Wales must give notice at a Register Office. If you are subject to immigration control, you can only give notice at a Designated Register Office in England and Wales. In Northern Ireland, notice may be given in person or by post. Everyone wishing to marry in a Register Office must provide proof of their nationality.
You are subject to immigration control if you are not:
- a British citizen (or someone with right of abode in the UK) or
- an EEA national or
- don't have any conditions attached to your stay in the UK because you are for example, a diplomat, or a member of visiting armed forces.
For more information on coming to the UK to marry, go to the GOV.UK website at www.gov.uk/marriage-visa.
If the registrar believes that a person is entering or has entered into a marriage for immigration purposes, the registrar has a duty to report this to the Home Office. The registrar must provide the Home Office with certain information, including the marital status and nationality of the person. The Home Office may wish to carry out investigations to ensure that the proposed marriage is not a 'sham'. It may extend the notice period to 70 days in order to carry out these investigations. If you don't comply with the investigations you may not be allowed to marry. You also risk being prosecuted and, if you are the person subject to immigration control, you will gain no advantage from the marriage and could be removed from the UK.
The marriage ceremony in the local Register Office or local authority approved premises will take approximately 10-15 minutes. The Superintendent Registrar or Registrar in Northern Ireland will make a short statement about marriage; you can ask the registrar beforehand to indicate what form of words will be used. It is not possible to use religious words in the civil ceremony. However, the ceremony may include readings, songs or music that contain reference to a god as long as they are in an 'essentially non-religious context'.
Each partner is required to repeat a standard set of promises. These may not be changed, but may be added to, as long as the additions are not religious. Rings are not required but can be exchanged if the couple wishes to.
After the ceremony, the marriage register is signed by both partners. Two witnesses, who must be over 16, must also sign at the time of the marriage. Witnesses must understand the language of the ceremony and have the mental capacity to understand the nature of the ceremony. Register Office staff are not allowed to act as witnesses.
Before signing the register, you should check the information in the entry is correct. It is possible to get incorrect information in the register on marriage certificates changed if there is proof that the errors were notified at the time of the marriage. When trying to correct information at a later stage, you will have to explain in writing how the incorrect information came to be recorded at the time of the marriage and may need to provide documentary evidence to prove any statements. The process may take a long time.
A fee must be paid for the ceremony. A certified copy of the entry in the register may be obtained at the time of the marriage for a fee. Additional copies may be obtained for a further fee.
Religious marriage ceremonies (England and Wales only)
The Church of England and the Church in Wales are allowed to register a marriage at the same time as performing the religious ceremony.
You won't have to give notice of the marriage to the Register Office unless you or your partner are a non-EEA national. If this is the case, you will need to give 28 days notice to the Register Office.
For other religious marriages you'll need to give 28 days notice of the marriage to the Register Office. Ministers and priests of all other religions can be authorised to register marriages and must have a certificate or licence to do so from the local Superintendent Registrar. For Jewish and Quaker marriages, the authorisation is automatic. For all other religions, if the official performing the ceremony is not authorised, either a Registrar must attend the religious ceremony or the partners will need to have separate religious and civil ceremonies.
Marriages in the Church of England and Church in Wales (opposite sex couples only)
Instead of going to the Superintendent Registrar before the ceremony, banns (a notice of the proposed marriage) can be read in the parish church of each of the partners and in the church where it has been agreed the marriage can take place. Banns must be read on three Sundays before the ceremony.
In England, in some cases, the vicar may advise that you need to apply to the Church of England for a licence instead of using the banns procedure. You can find out more about getting married in the Church of England on the Church of England website at www.yourchurchwedding.org.
Religious marriage ceremonies in Northern Ireland
Church of Ireland
You can be married in the Church of Ireland by one of three methods. These are:-
Licence – If you or your partner is a member of the Church of Ireland (or any other Protestant Episcopal Church i.e. Anglican), you may give notice to a Church of Ireland licensing minister that you wish to be married in a Church of Ireland church within your own district. Either you or your partner must have been living in the district for seven days before notice is given. The licenser will notify the clergy of the churches that you and your partner attend. Seven days after the licenser is notified, an oath will be administered to either you or your partner to the effect that one of you has lived for the past fourteen days within the district attached to the Church in which you intend to marry, and grant the licence. Any Church of Ireland clergyman will be able to provide you with the address of a licensing minister.
Special licence – If you or your partner is a member of the Church of Ireland (or any other Protestant Episcopal Church), a Bishop of the Church of Ireland may grant a special licence. This will allow the marriage to take place at any time and any place within his diocese. A special licence is useful where you and your partner have forgotten to give the required notice to a licenser, or wish to marry somewhere other than a church
Banns – If both you and your partner are members of the Church of Ireland, banns may be read out for three consecutive Sundays in the churches of which they are members, instead of applying for a licence. Seven days notice to the minister(s) may be required. The marriage ceremony must take place in the church (or one of the churches) in which the banns have been published.
You may be married by the same three methods in the various Presbyterian churches (excluding Free Presbyterians):-
Licence – If both you or your partner is Presbyterian, a licence may be granted by a licensing minister. You or your partner must give the licencing minister a certificate from the minister of your congregation, stating you have been a member of that congregation for at least one month. Immediately before the licence is granted, you must make an Oath that you have lived within the Presbytery for the preceding 15 days. A congregational minister will able to put clients in touch with a licensing minister.
Special licence – A special licence authorising marriage at any time and any place within Ireland may be granted by the Moderator of the Church, as long as you or your partner is a Presbyterian. This method is useful if you have forgotten to give the necessary notice or have your normal residence outside Northern Ireland.
Banns – If both you and your partner are Presbyterians, banns may be published in each of your congregations on the three Sundays preceding the marriage, instead of obtaining a licence. Six days notice is required by the minister before the banns are due to be read out for the first time. The marriage must take place in a church (or one of the churches) in which the banns have been published.
Roman Catholic Church
Arrangements for a wedding in a Catholic Church are always made through the priest in the parish in which you are living. Three months notice must be given to the priest.
Pre-marriage preparation courses, which you and your partner must attend, are held by Accord, formerly the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council (CMAC). There are centres in Belfast, Ballymena and Downpatrick. Details of the courses will be available to the priest.
If you are both Catholics you should approach the priest of the bride's parish to arrange a date. If you are both from the same parish, the priest in that parish does the preparations for you both, including the pre-nuptial enquiries, which are compulsory.
You must each have certain documents:-
- baptism certificate of recent date, that is, within the last six months before the wedding
- confirmation certificate
- letter of freedom, that is, a certificate that you have not married before and are free to marry
If you are Catholic and marrying someone who is not a Catholic, arrangements are made by the priest in your parish. He will apply to the bishop for permission (if your partner is baptised), or for a dispensation (if your partner is not baptised).
If your partner is not a Catholic they should present a baptism certificate (if baptised), and proof of freedom to marry should be presented. This can be in the form of a letter from, for example, parents or a minister, or an affidavit from a solicitor.
In all cases, the priest acts as a civil registrar and he registers the marriage with the registrar of marriages.
Members of other denominations, including Baptists, Brethren, Congregationalists, Free Presbyterians, Methodists, Salvation Army, must obtain a registrar's certificate or licence as for a civil wedding, as the church official are not authorised by the state to issue certificates or licences.
Where you or your partner is Baptist, Congregationalist, or Methodist, you may also proceed by obtaining a special licence from the governing body of your church. Couples should ask a minister of the relevant denomination for details. A fee is usually payable to the governing body, the amount being decided by that body. Marriages by special licence may be celebrated at any time and at any place in Ireland.
After giving notice to the Superintendent Registrar or Registrar in Northern Ireland, a marriage can take place in any synagogue, private house or other place as long as you and your partner are Jewish and the ceremony is held under the auspices of a synagogue which has a Secretary for Marriages appointed by the Registrar General. The marriage must be registered by the Secretary of the husband’s synagogue. The marriage can only proceed under a registrar's certificate in Northern Ireland.
Marriages in the Society of Friends
A marriage ceremony in the Society of Friends (Quakers) requires the approval of the Registering Officer of the Society of Friends acting for the meeting concerned. It must take place in the Meeting House or another place regularly used for worship.
Marriages in all other religions
In all other religions, religious marriage ceremonies can take place but the couple must first give notice to the Superintendent Registrar, or Registrar in Northern Ireland, at the local Register Office. The Superintendent Registrar, or Registrar in Northern Ireland, will know whether the building in which the ceremony is to take place has been registered. If the building has not been registered, the couple can still have a religious ceremony, but will also need to have a separate civil ceremony for the marriage to be valid under United Kingdom Law.
If the building is registered, an authorised person must be present at the ceremony to register the marriage. They will give the couple a marriage certificate on receipt of the fee. If there is no authorised person, the attendance of a Registrar is necessary and this should be arranged with the Superintendent or Registrar in Northern Ireland of the district.
Religious ceremonies and civil ceremonies
If a couple has been married in a Register Office in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, the partners can have a religious marriage ceremony afterwards. The partners are likely to be asked for their marriage certificate. A religious ceremony which does not comply with the conditions stated above and which takes place before a civil wedding is not a valid marriage under United Kingdom law and the couple’s status will be that of cohabitees.
If you want to get married outside England and Wales you will need to follow the procedure of the law in that country. Advice will be needed from a lawyer.
A Citizens Advice Bureau, can give brief information about marrying in other parts of the United Kingdom. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.
If one partner lives in Scotland or in Northern Ireland, the marriage can take place in England or Wales but certain procedures must be followed. If one partner lives outside the United Kingdom, the marriage cannot take place until that partner has arrived in England or Wales and fulfilled the necessary residence qualifications.
For more information about marrying in England or Wales if one partner lives elsewhere, you should consult an experienced adviser, for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.
A legally valid marriage performed in England, Wales or Northern Ireland is recognised in many other countries. However, confirmation should be sought from the embassy of the country concerned.
A marriage by proxy is one where one or both partners are not physically present at the ceremony. Marriages taking place under United Kingdom law are not valid if they are by proxy. However, United Kingdom law may in some circumstances consider a proxy marriage to be valid if both of the partners are ‘domiciled’ in a country which recognises marriages by proxy. The concept of ‘domicile’ is very complicated. If you need to know about the validity of a marriage by proxy you will need to seek specialist legal advice.
A polygamous marriage is one where a man can marry more than one wife. A polygamous marriage between partners, one or both of whom are domiciled in England, Wales or Northern Ireland is not valid. The concept of ‘domicile’ is very complex and does not necessarily mean ‘living in’ a country.
If you need to know about the validity of a polygamous marriage, you should seek specialist legal advice. An experienced adviser, for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau may be able to help you find specialist legal advice. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.
Certain marriages are treated as if they never took place. These are called void marriages. They are marriages which do not meet the requirements of United Kingdom law. An example of a void marriage is one where the partners may not marry because they are related.
Some marriages may have met the requirements of United Kingdom law when they took place but may then be annulled. These are called voidable marriages. There are a number of situations where marriages are considered voidable, for example if one partner has been granted a full gender recognition certificate (see under Transsexual people), or if one of the partners did not give valid consent to the marriage because the consent was given under duress. Either partner can seek to annul the marriage but if neither partner does, the marriage will be valid.
If you need to know more about voidable marriages, you will need to seek specialist advice. An experienced adviser, for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau may be able to help you find specialist legal advice. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.
If you have been married in a way that is not recognised as valid in the United Kingdom, the marriage can take place again according to United Kingdom law provided that both you and your partner meet the requirements described earlier.
If you marry in the United Kingdom and are already legally married, the marriage will be bigamous and therefore is void. Although it is a criminal offence to marry someone when you are already married, prosecution is not automatic.
If you who think you may be about to enter into a bigamous marriage you should seek advice from a specialist solicitor. An experienced adviser, for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau may be able to help you find a specialist solicitor. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.
As long as the legal requirements described earlier are met, there is nothing to prevent you from marrying again in a civil ceremony in the UK if you are widowed or divorced or if you were in a civil partnership that has been dissolved.
Religions have different rules about whether someone can remarry in a religious ceremony. If you or your partner has been married before, or has been in a civil partnership that is now dissolved, and you want a religious ceremony, you will need to check with an official of the relevant religion.
Even if you are not allowed to marry in a religious ceremony, for example, because you belong to a religion that does not permit marriage of people who are divorced, it may be possible to arrange for your relationship to be blessed in a religious ceremony. This is at the discretion of the religious official concerned.
What is a forced marriage?
A forced marriage is where you are pressurised into the marriage against your will. You may be emotionally blackmailed or physically threatened, usually by your family. It is not the same as an arranged marriage, where both parties agree to the marriage.
In England and Wales, forced marriage is a criminal offence. If someone forces you into marriage, they could go to prison for up to seven years.
The Forced Marriage Unit
If you're afraid that you or someone else may be forced into marriage in the UK or overseas, you should contact the Forced Marriage Unit for advice. In an emergency, you should call the police on 999.
Forced Marriage Unit
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
King Charles Street
London SW1A 2AH
Tel: 020 7008 0151 (Monday to Friday from 9.00am to 5.00pm)
Out of hours tel: 020 7008 1500 (ask for the Global Response Centre)
Forced Marriage Protection Orders
If you are being forced into marriage or are already in a forced marriage, you can apply to the county court for a Forced Marriage Protection Order to protect you.
A Forced Marriage Protection Order forbids families from:
- taking you abroad for marriage
- taking your passport away
- intimidating or using violence against you.
It can also require family members to reveal where you are. The police can also apply for a Forced Marriage Protection Order. If someone breaks the order, it is a criminal offence and they could be sent to prison for up to five years in England and Wales, or up to six months in Northern Ireland.
You should get legal advice as soon as you can. You may get legal aid.
Further information and support
The Honour Network Helpline advises victims of forced marriages at www.karmanirvana.org.uk.
You can find more information about forced marriage on the GOV.UK website at www.gov.uk.
In England and Wales, you can get copies of a marriage certificate from the General Register Office. Its contact details are on the GOV.UK website at www.gov.uk.
In Northern Ireland, certificates can be obtained from the General Register Office of Northern Ireland. Their contact details can be found at www.nidirect.gov.uk.
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