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Divorce law blog

When is a marriage not a marriage?

14/12/2017   By: Rosie Pearson

Where two people take part in a ceremony that purports to be a marriage that ceremony can give rise to a valid marriage, a voidable marriage (a flawed marriage that may be annulled by the court), a void marriage or a non-marriage. This blog post discusses the status of the last category within this list: non-marriages.

A non-marriage is one that has no legal status, because it bears little resemblance to a marriage and has no legal consequences whatsoever. As non-marriages are not recognised in the eyes of the law, it is not possible to apply for a divorce or the financial relief applicable to recognised marriages.

A  marriage performed within a play or a television programme is a common example of a non marriage; however, there are other ceremonies and events that give rise to non-marriages. The following events have been considered non-marriages:

  • religious ceremonies intended to be blessings only;
  • ceremonies which a party is led to believe constitute a ‘betrothal’ or engagement;
  • ceremonies that take place over the telephone;
  • a gathering at a flat where parties entered into a religious agreement that enabled them to live together and have children.

The factors that are taken into account by a court when deciding whether a ceremony gives rise to a non-marriage are:

  • whether the ceremony or event set out or purported to be a lawful marriage;
  • whether it bore all or enough of the hallmarks of marriage;
  • whether the key participants (in particular the official performing the ceremony) believed, intended and understood the ceremony as giving rise to a lawful marriage;
  • the reasonable perceptions, understandings and beliefs of those in attendance.

The distinction between a non-marriage and a void marriage is crucial because the parties to a void marriage can apply to the court for a declaration that the marriage is void, get an order annulling the marriage and apply for financial orders just as if they were getting divorced. The difference is that a void marriage, whilst also being one that does not exist, does retain some semblance of a marriage. An example may be a couple who exchanged vows during a religious ceremony, which did not meet the formalities of the Marriage Act 1949 but did bear some hallmarks of an ordinary marriage ceremony.

The family team at Mills & Reeve are experienced in dealing with issues over the validity of a marriage and can advise you on the status of your marriage. Give them a call, or enquire via email, if you need to discuss the points raised above.

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