UK marriage laws

You may be stressed out by all the planning that you’ve been doing for your big day - but have you thought of the legalities? Technically speaking, marriage is first and foremost a legally binding act. The Mix explains UK marriage laws for same sex and opposite sex couples.

Two young women are sitting down. They are researching UK marriage laws.

Engagement and the law

Since 1970 engagement has not been included in UK marriage laws. This means that you can’t sue for damages if it’s broken off at any point up to the minute before you say I do. Plus, there’s usually no legal duty to return the ring, unless agreed to.

Marriage law

There are some pretty clear cut rules to follow when it comes to spending your life with someone. These include: 

  • No one can be forced to marry against their wishes. See our article on forced marriage for more info.
  • Both members of the couple must be aged 16 or over.
  • You can’t already be married (see bigamy).
  • You can’t be too closely related (we know, it’s a bit strange that you can be related at all, but that’s the rule).
  • Under 18s must have their parent’s or guardian’s written consent. If they don’t it’s a criminal offence, although the marriage would still be legally valid. Note that from February 2023 this will no longer apply, the legal age to marry will become 18 in England and Wales with no exceptions. Learn more in this article about getting married at 16.
  • Marriages involving under-16s are not recognised by law. As above, from February 2023 marriages involving under-18s will not be recognised in England and Wales either.
  • You need at least two witnesses to sign the register on the day.

Changing your name when getting married

Although some women in Britain change their surname when they marry, this isn’t law. In fact, the tradition of taking your hubby’s last name has its origins in men viewing women as their property. Thankfully, nowadays women are treated as human beings in their own right and can do whatever they like with their names. 

This includes keeping their own family name, or joining the two in a double-barrelled surname such as Smith-Jones. Heck, the man can even change his name if he wants to. And the same rules apply to same sex relationships. Basically, it’s just about whatever works best for the couple.

Bigamy laws in the UK

Bigamy i.e. being married to more than one person at one time, is actually illegal under UK marriage laws. It’s only recognised in England and Wales if the ceremonies took place in a country which allows marriages of this kind and all parties were legally free to marry in this way. Did someone say destination wedding?

Same sex marriage & civil partnerships

Same-sex couples can either enter into a civil partnership or marry. Civil partnerships were created before same sex marriage. These offer legal recognition for relationships, with almost exactly the same rights and responsibilities as marriage. Think of them as marriage lite. FYI as of 2019, straight couples can also get civil partnerships if they want. 

Since same sex marriage was introduced after civil partnerships were created, same sex couples also have the option of converting their existing civil partnerships into a marriage. Just keep in mind that you can’t have both. It’s an either-or type of situation.

When was same sex marriage legalised in the UK?

When was same sex marriage legalised in the UK? Less than ten years ago. Pretty wild, we know.

This type of union became legal at different points. England, Scotland and Wales took the awesome step towards marriage equality in 2014. Northern Ireland was late to legalising same sex marriage; 6 years late to be precise. About damn time if you ask us.

Marriage ceremony laws in the UK

You can get married by a civil ceremony or a religious ceremony. In both cases, the following legal requirements must be met for it to be recognised by law:

  • 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. So at a minimum your wedding’s gotta have 5 people present.

Civil ceremonies – performed by a Registrar

Civil ceremonies can take place in a Registry Office a.k.a Register Office or any other premises approved for marriage by a local authority (a stately home, theatre, zoo etc). In Scotland it’s even possible to have an outdoor ceremony as long as the person conducting the ceremony is empowered to carry it out and make a registration.

In the rest of the UK the government has legalised outdoor registrations permanently after temporarily doing so during the coronavirus pandemic.

Religious – performed by a Minister of the church

Almost anyone can have an Anglican marriage. Notable exceptions include divorcees whose exes are still alive. The wedding itself can take place in any church or chapel of the Church of England, Church of Wales, or an Armed Forces Chapel. And they don’t need to involve a Registrar.

They can also take place in other places of worship. But only if they’re within the Registration District where you or your spouse live. In which case, you’d need to have a Registrar present.

Next Steps

By Nishika Melwani

Updated on 02-Jul-2022