Married, but not married – Is my religious marriage recognised in the UK?

Wedding rings on a religious bookThe UK is one of the more ethnically diverse and multicultural nations in the world. It is therefore no surprise that the UK sees its people celebrate their marriages in various ways and in accordance with a number of different customs and faiths. But, where does it leave you if your religious marriage is not recognised in English law?

To marry in accordance with the laws in the UK, you must satisfy a number of legal requirements. You are required to give notice of your marriage in advance and the marriage must take place in an approved venue, which include some places of religious worship. The marriage must be carried out by (or in the presence of) a person authorised to register marriages and is entered in to the marriage register, signed by parties to the marriage, two witnesses as well as the authorised person. There are a number of other legal requirements which must also be met, but these are not detailed in this article.

There are different requirements in respect of religious marriages and if the correct procedure is not followed, the marriage may not be legally valid:-

  • Church of England marriages must be carried out by a member of the clergy, who registers the marriage. The marriage must be carried out in the presence of two witnesses and in accordance with the rules of the Church of England.
  • Quaker and Jewish marriage ceremonies can be conducted according to religious rules and the official performing the religious marriage ceremony will register the marriage. There is no requirement for the marriage ceremony to take place in a registered building or in public.
  • Other religious marriages, such as Muslim, Sikh and Hindu marriages, must take place in a registered building. There must be at least two witnesses present, with either the registrar or an authorised person (i.e. an Imam) present. Both parties must make declarations in respect of their marriage.

It is most important to note that religious marriage ceremonies are not recognised in English law unless the legal requirements are also complied with. A marriage certificate is issued to all couples who have legally recognised marriage ceremonies.

For many people in the UK who marry in accordance with both the English laws as well as their religion, the religious ceremony holds much more significance and they do not consider themselves to be ‘married’ until the religious ceremony has been conducted – the civil ceremony being a mere formality. However, there are many people in the UK who have married only in accordance with their religion. So, what rights are afforded to these couples if they later separate?

Channel 4 aired a documentary last year, “The Truth About Muslim Marriage”, and it highlighted that a vast number of British Muslim couples did not have a civil marriage in addition to their religious marriage (nikah ceremony). Some of these couples wholly believe that their marriages are recognised in the eyes of the UK law and others had the intention to ratify their religious marriages with a civil marriage, but never got around to it. After all, the purpose of a civil marriage in these circumstances is to afford protection in the event of separation or divorce and who wants to think about either of these when they’re getting married?

Whether a marriage is legally recognised or not is very important as this will inevitably affect the rights of the parties to the marriage. If your religious marriage is not recognised in the eyes of the law, your relationship is akin to that of unmarried/cohabiting partners as far as the law is concerned. It follows, if your religious marriage is not recognised by the law, neither is your ‘divorce’. This may leave you in a very financially vulnerable position if you later separate, particularly if you reside in the family home and it is owned solely by the other party. Even if the couple do not separate, there may still be consequences if one party passes away, without having made a Will, in which case the other party may not inherit anything from their estate or benefit from their pension. A further consideration is that the parties to a religious marriage may marry somebody else in accordance with English law and, in these circumstances; more protection would be afforded to the parties in that marriage.

There is an exception in relation to marriages abroad. Briefly, these marriages will legally be recognised in English law if they were carried out in accordance with the laws of the Country in which marriage was carried out.

If you are unsure about the status of your marriage and whether it is legally valid in the eyes of the law, or you have had a religious marriage and are now separating, please do not hesitate to contact Pavneet Matharu on 01785 272000 or pavneet.matharu@orj.co.uk to book a free initial consultation.