Marriage law

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

Common law marriage

In medieval Europe, marriage came under the jurisdiction of canon law, which recognised 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 if 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 recognised in the future United States and Canada. In the United States, common law marriages are still recognised in Alabama, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and the District of Columbia, 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.

Australia does not recognize common law marriages.

Marriageable age

The minimum age at which a person is able to lawfully marry, and if parental or other consents are required, vary from country to country. A marriage with a person who is under the marriageable age is void.

Kinship restrictions

The marriage laws of all 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 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. A breach of these restrictions renders the marriage void.



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 (i.e., a church or registry 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.

Recognition of marriage

See also

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