Marriage law

Marriage law

Marriage law refers to the legal requirements which determine the validity of a marriage, which vary considerably between countries.


Rights and obligations

A Ketubah in Aramaic, a Jewish marriage-contract outlining the duties of each partner

A marriage, by definition, bestows rights and obligations on the married parties, and sometimes on relatives as well, being the sole mechanism for the creation of affinal ties (in-laws). These may include:

  • Giving a husband/wife or his/her family control over a spouse’s labor, and property.
  • Giving a husband/wife responsibility for a spouse’s debts.
  • Giving a husband/wife visitation rights when his/her spouse is incarcerated or hospitalized.
  • Giving a husband/wife control over his/her spouse’s affairs when the spouse is incapacitated.
  • Establishing the second legal guardian of a parent’s child.
  • Establishing a joint fund of property for the benefit of children.
  • Establishing a relationship between the families of the spouses.

These rights and obligations vary considerably between societies, and between groups within society.[1]

Common law marriage

In medieval Europe, marriage came under the jurisdiction of canon law, which recognized as a valid marriage one where the parties stated that they took one another as wife and husband, even in absence of any witnesses.

The Council of Trent (convened 1545–1563) ruled that in future a marriage was only valid in Roman Catholic countries if it was witnessed by a priest of the Roman Catholic Church or, if obtaining a priest were impractical, by other witnesses. This ruling was not accepted in the newly Protestant nations of Europe, nor by Protestants who lived in Roman Catholic countries or their colonies in the Americas or elsewhere, nor by Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Common-law marriages were abolished in England and Wales by the Marriage Act 1753. The Act required marriages to be performed by a priest of the Church of England – unless the participants in the marriage were Jews or Quakers. The Act applied to Ireland after the Act of Union 1800, but the requirement for a valid marriage to be performed by a Church of England priest created special problems in predominantly Roman Catholic Ireland. The law did not provide an exception. The Act did not apply to Scotland because by the Acts of Union 1707 Scotland retained its own legal system. To get around the requirements of the Marriage Act, such as minimum-age requirements, couples would go to Gretna Green, in southern Scotland, to get married under Scots law.

The Marriage Act of 1753 also did not apply to Britain's overseas colonies of the time, so common-law marriages continued to be recognized in the future United States and Canada. In the United States, common-law marriages are still recognized in Alabama, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and the District of Columbia,[2] and in several Canadian provinces.

All countries in Europe have now abolished "marriage by habit and repute", with Scotland being the last to do so in 2006.[3]

Australia does not recognize common-law marriages.[4]

Marriage restrictions

Marriage is an institution that is historically filled with restrictions. From age, to gender, to social status, restrictions are placed on marriage by society.

Marriage age

The minimum age at which a person is able to lawfully marry, and whether parental or other consents are required, vary from country to country.

In England and Wales the general age at which a person may marry is 18, but 16- or 17-year-olds may get married with their parents' or guardians' consent. If they are unable to obtain this, they can gain consent from the courts, which may be granted by the Magistrates' Courts, or the County or High Court family divisions.

Gender restrictions

Legal, social, and religious restrictions apply in all countries on the genders of the couple.

In response to changing social and political attitudes, some jurisdictions and religious denominations now recognize marriages between people of the same sex. In some jurisdictions these are sometimes called "civil unions" or "domestic partnerships", while some others explicitly prohibit same-sex marriages.

In 1989, Denmark became the first country in the modern era to extend the rights and responsibilities of marriage to same-sex couples under the name of registered partnership[citation needed]. As of 2011, ten countries have come to recognise same-sex marriages for civil purposes, namely the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland and Argentina. To avoid the use of the term "marriage", some governments provide civil unions, which are open to couples of the same sex, and in some jurisdictions also to those of opposite sexes who do not want to marry, to confer all or a portion of the benefits of married status[citation needed]. Civil unions (and registered/domestic partnerships) are currently recognized and accepted in approximately 30 out of 193 countries worldwide and in some U.S. states[citation needed]. However, in countries where it has been adopted, applications for marriage licenses have far exceeded governmental estimates of demand.[5] Some jurisdictions, such as the nations of Israel, Aruba, and the Netherlands Antilles, as well as the U.S. states of New Mexico, and Rhode Island, recognize same-sex marriages lawfully entered into elsewhere, while not permitting them to be performed locally.[citation needed]

In addition to civil authorities, some religious denominations ceremonially perform civil unions and same-sex marriages, and recognize them as essentially equivalent to other marriages. For example, Lutheran churches in Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and some Lutheran churches of the Evangelical Church in Germany allow blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples, as do Unitarian Universalist churches.[citation needed]

As of August 2011, six U.S. states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex couples to enter into marriage – these states are: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, Iowa, New Hampshire, and New York. The Supreme Court of Connecticut has also ruled that restriction of marriage to heterosexuals is illegal under the state constitution,[6] and gay marriages began in Connecticut on November 12, 2008.[7] Following a decision by its state supreme court, California allowed same-sex marriages beginning on June 16, 2008, but voters passed Proposition 8 on November 4, 2008,[8] amending the state constitution and revoking the right of same-sex couples to marry. In nine other U.S. regions, including Vermont, Maine, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia, civil unions or domestic partnerships are available to couples of the same sex, often carrying the same entailments as marriage, under a different name. However, these apply only to benefits under state law, and are not recognized by other states (with a few exceptions) or the U.S. federal government.

In Australia, de facto relationships are legally recognized in many, but not all, ways,[9][10] with some states having registers of de facto relationships, although the federal government has amended existing legislation to specify that only marriages between a man and a woman will be recognized as "marriages".[11] As a result, the Australian Capital Territory's 2006 Bill to give civil unions identical status and processes as registered marriages, was repealed by the federal government before it came into effect.

These developments have created a political and religious reaction in some countries, including in England, where the Church of England, after long debate, officially banned blessings of gay couples by Church of England clergy,[12] and in the United States. In contrast to the three above-mentioned U.S. states where the state constitutions have been found by courts to require equivalent marriage for same-sex couples, several states have specifically defined marriage as between a man and a woman, often after popular referenda, including the state of Mississippi which passed a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman and refusing to recognize same-sex marriages from other states with 86% of the vote supporting that proposition.[1]PDF (29.9 KiB) Federally, the U.S. Congress has considered, but failed to pass, a Federal Marriage Amendment. In addition, while Lutheran churches in some countries allow blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples, as stated previously, in other countries (like Finland) such ceremonies are discouraged and rarely performed by the church.[citation needed]

Kinship restrictions

Societies have often placed restrictions on marriage to relatives, though the degree of prohibited relationship varies widely. In most societies, marriage between brothers and sisters has been forbidden, with ancient Egyptian, Hawaiian, and Inca royalty being prominent exceptions. In many societies, marriage between first cousins is preferred, while at the other extreme, the medieval Catholic Church prohibited marriage even between distant cousins.

The marriage laws of all modern countries restrict the relatives a person is allowed to marry, though the degree of prohibited relationship varies widely. In most countries, marriage between brothers and sisters is forbidden. Many countries maintain a standard of required distance (in both consanguinity and affinity) for marriage.

In the United Kingdom, the Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act 1907 removed the previous prohibition of a man marrying the sister of his deceased wife. In Australia, marriage with an ancestor or descendant is prohibited, as is a marriage between a brother and a sister, whether of whole blood or half-blood and even if the brother or sister has been adopted.

All mainstream religions prohibit some marriages on the basis of the consanguinity (lineal descent) and affinity (kinship by marriage) of the prospective marriage partners, though the standards vary.

Social restrictions

Many societies, even some with a cultural tradition of polygamy, recognize monogamy as the only valid form of marriage. For example, People's Republic of China shifted from allowing polygamy to supporting only monogamy in the Marriage Act of 1953 after the Communist revolution.[citation needed] Polygamy is practiced illegally by some groups in the United States and Canada, primarily by certain Mormon fundamentalist sects that separated from the mainstream Latter Day Saints movement after the practice was renounced in 1890.[13] Many African and Islamic societies still allow polygamy.[citation needed] In North America, only Saskatchewan province allows and sanctions polygamous relationships under legal jurisdictional statute. {s.51 Saskatchewan Family Property Act"}

In the Indian Hindu community, especially in the Brahmin caste, marrying a person of the same gotra was prohibited, since persons belonging to the same gotra are said to have identical patrilineal descent. In ancient India, when gurukuls existed, the shishyas (pupils) were advised against marrying any of guru's children, as shishyas were also considered the guru's children and it would be considered marriage among siblings. However, there were exceptions, including Arjuna's son Abhimanyu's marriage to Uttra, the dance student of Arjuna in Mahabharata. The Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 brought reforms in the area of same-gotra marriages, which were banned prior to the act's passage. Now the Indian constitution allows any consenting adult heterosexual couple (women 18 or older and men 21 or older) from any race, religion, caste, or creed to marry.

Many societies have also adopted other restrictions on whom one can marry, such as prohibitions of marrying persons with the same surname, or persons with the same sacred animal. Anthropologists refer to these sorts of restrictions as exogamy. One example is South Korea's general taboo against a man marrying a woman with the same family name. The most common surname in South Korea is Kim (almost 20%); however, there are several branches (or clans) in the Kim surname. (Korean family names are divided into one or more clans.) Only intra-clan marriages are prohibited, as they are considered one type of exogamy. Thus, many "Kim-Kim" couples can be found.[citation needed]

Societies have also at times required marriage from within a certain group. Anthropologists refer to these restrictions as endogamy. An example of such restrictions would be a requirement to marry someone from the same tribe. Racist laws adopted by some societies in the past—such as Nazi-era Germany, apartheid-era South Africa and most of the United States in the nineteenth and the first half of the 20th century—which prohibited marriage between persons of different races could also be considered examples of endogamy. In the U.S., many laws banning interracial marriage, which were state laws, were gradually repealed between 1948 and 1967. The U.S. Supreme Court declared all such laws unconstitutional in the case of Loving v. Virginia in 1967.[14]


Polygamy, in which a person is married to more than one spouse at one time, is illegal in many countries, but accepted by other societies, though it is far less common than monogamy.[15] In India, only Muslims are allowed to practice polygamy.[16] Africa has the highest rate of polygamy in the world.[17] In Senegal, for example, nearly 47 percent of marriages are multiple.[18] Polygamy is normally not permitted in most western countries, though some recognise bona fides polygamous marriages entered into in countries that routinely perform such marriages, such as in a Muslim country.

State recognition

In many jurisdictions, a civil marriage may take place as part of the religious marriage ceremony, although they are theoretically distinct. In most American states, a wedding must be officiated by the justice of the peace in order for it to be recognized. However, priests, ministers, rabbis, and many other religious authorities can act as viable agents of the state. In some countries, such as France, Spain, Germany, Turkey, Argentina, Japan and Russia, it is necessary to be married by government authority separately from any religious ceremony, with the state ceremony being the legally binding one. In those cases, the marriage is usually legalized before the ceremony. Some jurisdictions allow civil marriages in circumstances which are notably not allowed by particular religions, such as same-sex marriages or civil unions.

Marriage relationships may also be created by the operation of the law alone, as in common-law marriage, sometimes called "marriage by habit and repute." This is a judicial recognition that two people who have been living as domestic partners are subject to the rights and obligations of a legal marriage, even without formally marrying. However, in the UK at least, common-law marriage has been abolished and there are no rights available unless a couple marries or enters into a civil partnership. In all cases, a married person cannot become eligible for common law timeframe until divorced from any previous spouse.

In some cases couples living together do not wish to be recognised as married, such as when pension or alimony rights are adversely affected, or because of taxation consideration, or because of immigration issues, and for many other reasons. Usually, consent forms the basis of such relationships that are not really marital, with authoritative property laws being inapplicable.

The status in the eyes of one authority may not be the same as for another. For example, a marriage may be recognised civilly, but not by a church, and vice versa.[citation needed] Normally a marriage entered into in one country will be recognised in other countries.[citation needed] Sometimes, however, a religious ceremony or a marriage entered into in one country is not recognized by another, such as a same-sex marriage.[19]

International recognition

Some countries give legal recognition to marriages performed in some other state under the Hague Convention on Marriages (1978).[20] For this to apply, both the country of marriage and the country where recognition is sought need to be members of this convention.

If the country of marriage is not a member of the Hague Convention on Marriages (1978), then the marriage documents will need to be certified following the Apostille convention. This certification is usually performed in the country of marriage by the embassy of the country whose recognition is sought.



In many countries there is a requirement to give notice of an impending marriage to the community so that objections to the marriage can be raised. This custom was in place as a mechanism to necessitate the consent of parents as well as the wider community.


"Treasure legal marriage, fight illegal marriage!", a slogan in the village of Xinwupu, Yangxin County, Hubei

While some countries, such as Australia, permit marriages to be held in private and at any location, others, including England, require that the civil ceremony be conducted in a place specially sanctioned by law (e.g., a church or register office), and be open to the public. An exception can be made in the case of marriage by special emergency license, which is normally granted only when one of the parties is terminally ill. Rules about where and when persons can marry vary from place to place. Some regulations require that one of the parties reside in the locality of the registry office.


See also


  1. ^ Leach, Edmund (1968). Paul Bonannan and John Middleton. ed. Marriage, Family, and Residence. The Natural History Press. ISBN 1121644708. 
  2. ^ Marriage laws | LII / Legal Information Institute
  3. ^ Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006.
  4. ^ [[Marriage Act 1961 (Australia)|]].
  5. ^ Ford, Richard (2006-12-05). "Gay men are in much more of a hurry to 'wed' their partners". London: Times Online.,,2-2486987,00.html. Retrieved 2006-12-11. 
  6. ^ "Connecticut High Court Grants Marriage Rights For Same-Sex Couples".,0,7812756.story. Retrieved 2008-10-16. 
  7. ^ "Gay marriages in Connecticut to begin Nov. 12". Retrieved 2008-11-05. 
  8. ^ Morain, Dan; Garrison, Jessica. "California voters approve Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriages". Los Angeles Times.,0,6187089,full.story. Retrieved 2008-11-05. 
  9. ^ Law Society of New South Wales - De facto relationships?
  10. ^ "Same sex couples". 
  11. ^ MARRIAGE AMENDMENT ACT 2004 NO. 126, 2004 - SCHEDULE 1 - Amendment of the Marriage Act 1961
  12. ^ "House of Bishops issues pastoral statement on Civil Partnerships". Church of England press release. 2005-07-25. Retrieved 2006-12-05. 
  13. ^ LDS Gospel Library: Polygamy (Plural Marriage)
  14. ^ Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967).
  15. ^ Murdock, George Peter (1949). Social Structure. New York: The MacMillan Company. ISBN 0-02-922290-7.  See also: Kaingang.
  16. ^ Muslim Marriage Act, 1956
  17. ^ Social and Cultural IssuesPDF (116 KiB)
  18. ^ Diouf, Nafi (May 2, 2004). "Polygamy hangs on in Africa". The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. 
  19. ^ Family Policy - Issues Affecting Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Families
  20. ^ Hague Convention on Marriages 1978

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