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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. Read this guide to find out how UK law regulates the process of getting married and leads to the legally recognised union of two people.

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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
  • capable of understanding what marriage means and of consenting to a marriage

Young people aged between 16 and 18 need parental consent to get married in England and Wales. Both parents with parental responsibility must give consent.

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.

Same-sex couples can legally marry in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Same-sex couples who marry abroad under foreign law are recognised as being married in the UK.

Same-sex couples can either opt for same-sex marriage or civil partnerships. 

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 and Wales and Scotland.

In the UK, a transgender person can marry someone of the opposite gender or same gender to their acquired gender. A transgender person will need to apply for and have been granted a full Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) 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 at birth.

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 registry office before it can proceed. You must give at least 28 days' notice at your local registry office which should include details of where you intend to get married. You can contact your local registry 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 can do so. Proof of name, age, nationality and address will be required 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 is 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 registry 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 schedule or marriage document which will need to be witnessed by two witnesses over the age of 16. 

The signed marriage schedule or document is then sent to your local registry office and added to the marriage register. You will then receive your marriage certificate. 

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 registry office is not needed; instead, banns (notice of the proposed marriage) are typically 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 registry 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 schedule or marriage document in the presence of two witnesses over the age of 16.

The signed marriage schedule or document is then sent to your local registry office and added to the marriage register. You will then receive your marriage certificate.

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 registry 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).

In the UK, both opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples can enter into civil partnerships. Registering a civil partnership is similar to marrying in a civil ceremony and involves giving notice of the intention to enter into a civil partnership and registering the civil partnership.

Giving notice

Both parties wishing to enter into a civil partnership will need to give notice in person, of their intention to register a civil partnership to the local registry office where they live. The couple giving notice must also have lived in the area for at least 7 days before giving notice.

You must give at least 28 days' notice at your local registry office which should include details of where you intend to form a civil partnership. The notice will be publicly displayed, during which time anyone with strong grounds for objecting to the civil partnership can do so. Proof of name, age, nationality and address will be required 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 is needed.

Registration

Once the 28 days have passed and there are no objections, the civil partnership can be registered. The registry office will give you a civil partnership schedule which you will need to register your partnership. You generally need to register your civil partnership within 12 months of giving notice.
You can register your civil partnership in any registry office or at any venue with approval to register civil partnerships. Any venue that has been approved to hold civil marriages automatically also has approval to register civil partnerships. Non-religious venues that hold weddings cannot choose not to hold civil partnerships.

Religious premises are not required to host civil partnership ceremonies. If they do, they can choose to host:

  • all civil partnerships

  • solely civil partnerships between same-sex couples

  • solely civil partnerships between opposite-sex couples

Your civil partnership has legally been registered when you and your partner have signed the civil partnership schedule. This must be done in front of a registrar and two witnesses over the age of 16.

Note that no religious service is allowed at the signing of the civil partnership schedule.

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. See the government website for comprehensive information about getting married if either spouse is a foreign national.

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

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