What are the steps to getting legally married?

Jun 7, 2021 | Weddings


Image: Rockrose Photography

Here I detail the civil process of getting legally married in England.  A subject particularly pertinent to me as it is the one area in a wedding ceremony where a celebrant  is currently redundant.  Church legal marriage requirements are different again and vary across the denominations.

In this blog I’m going to unpick the process of getting legally married and importantly the significance of the legal signing during your civil wedding ceremony.

Couples continually choose a registrar over a celebrant for this reason despite the many compromises they have to make to the content, timings and location of their ceremony.

Why is the legal aspect of a wedding seen by so many to be such an integral element within a wedding when the registering of other life events be it death or birth are not worthy of ceremony at all.

legally married

image: Kathryn Clarke Mcleod

What is the process of getting legally married?

The first step is to give notice. You need to obtain an appointment with the registration office to give details of your ceremony date and venue and important details about yourself.  This notice has to be given within the district you live regardless if you are holding the ceremony elsewhere

Notice may be given up to 1 year in advance but it must be at least 28 days before your wedding.    The recommendation is to do this between 3-6 months before your wedding day giving you ample time to assemble the documentation you need.

If you are unable to be married within the 12 months you have to give notice again.    During these unprecedented times of a pandemic when couples have been unable to legally marry within the time frame it seems that they are being charged again.  In my opinion unfairly and harshly and a lucrative income stream for a Council.

What documents do you bring to your appointment

 To be legally married you will both need to provide original documents to confirm your name, age, nationality and marital status.   The cost differs from council to council but ranges from £35 to £65 each and is set by the General Register Office. (GRO). Check with your local council website for the full details.

legally married

Image: Simon Hawkins Weddings

What happens at your notice appointment

The questions asked to be legally married are not to trip you up but more designed to catch people who are trying to marry illegally or being forced into it.  You will be interviewed separately and will both be asked the same questions such as confirming each other’s details, names, addresses date of birth and occupations and the same details of your parents.

Your venue

Your legal marriage must take place at the venue you have named in your notice whether that be a registry office or an approved licensed venue.  If you change the venue where you wish to be married, you will need to give notice again and pay the fee again.  Another little earner for the Council.

Statutory basic ceremony

There are two types of ceremony to be legally married offered by the registration services.  The statutory basic ceremony also known as the 2+2 ceremony and the full ceremony.  The statutory basic ceremony is the option to request if you are wanting a celebrant led ceremony.  It means that you will have legally contracted the marriage only.  The personal commitment you will make to one another will take place at your wedding ceremony conducted by a celebrant on your nominated date, time and place.

Every council/district is different but mostly the basic statutory ceremony is offered on differing days in nominated offices in specified locations.  This ceremony just includes the legal elements needed to contract a marriage.

The only people to attend will be yourselves, your two witnesses and the registrars.  It includes a declaration, contracting words and an option ring vow.

legally married

Image: Venetia Norrington Photography

Full ceremony offered by the registrars

Again this is offered at nominated locations or approved licensed venues and the exact rules and costs differ from council to council.

This is a longer ceremony which, in the main, follows a very familiar procedural template.  Some registries offer a limited amount of customisation which needs to be approved at least a month in advance.  Be aware that if for whatever reason you decide you want to change from a full ceremony to a statutory I have heard that some offices will offer no refund or deduction whether it is related to Covid or not.

What happens on the day

To be legally married the registrars will need to have a short interview with you both, together or separately, to check the details to be entered onto the register.  They are on a strict schedule and will not want to be kept waiting as they usually have several ceremonies in one day.

When do you feel legally married?

Vows and rings have been exchanged.  You have been pronounced man and wife.   Do you feel married?

The groom has been given permission to kiss his bride. There is happiness and joy.  Do you feel married now?

Finally you retreat and duly sign what is now called the Marriage Schedule.  Not the marriage certificate (from 4th May 2021 the paper register stopped being the legal marriage record).  Now do you feel married?

The marriage schedule is given to your registrar once signed who will then register the marriage online.  Your marriage schedule will then be posted to you at a later date.  Is this when you will feel legally married when you have your certificate in your hand?

I am not trivialising the importance of legal marriage.  But actually at what point will you feel married?  I’m guessing it’s when your officiant (be it a registrar or celebrant) pronounces you man and wife, wife and wife or groom and groom..  The chances are you at that stage you will not have even signed the schedule.

legally married

image: Tom Frost Photography

So why do couples place so much importance in having it included in their ceremony

There is absolutely no necessity for it to be included within your wedding ceremony and it prevents you from having a bespoke customised ceremony reflecting you your beliefs and values.  The legal marriage aspect of your wedding can be done before or even after your wedding ceremony.

The paperwork is done beforehand in the giving notice process and confirmed during a short interview before your wedding.  You don’t receive the marriage certificate on the day; it is posted to you later.   So apart from the convenience of saying the 14 legal contracting words on the same day as your vows what other benefits are there?

Forego convenience and you’ll gain individuality

It’s a fact people pay for convenience.    But people also pay for individuality and personality.  You can’t have a personalised legal ceremony.  By using a Registrar your ceremony will be a generic templated script which has been churned out time and time again by a very busy officiant who also happens to be a total stranger, on a strict inflexible schedule.    Is that what you what?

Whilst researching I have found registry offices’ interpretations of what they are and are not permitted within a ceremony varies considerably.   Some are catching on that couples are wanting more personalisation and presumably feeling threatened by the celebrant led ceremony.  They are becoming quite creative in the ways they circumnavigate the very rules they are governed by.   Others even in these uncertain times when they are dealing with massive backlogs remain rigorous in their enforcement of the rules notwithstanding the predicament of the couples involved.

Hopefully if you have chosen to use the registration services your office is being as helpful as they possibly can.  They are dealing with an unprecedented situation and despite my observations above  I have heard of some that have been amazing.

Putting all that aside the facts are that the current archaic regulations remain incredibly restrictive so I’m suggesting that you forego the convenience of the one stop shop legal ceremony.  Book a basic statutory ceremony for either before or even after your wedding  and start planning the ultimate personalised bespoke wedding ceremony at a time and place of your choice – oh yes and don’t forget to find  a wedding celebrant to help you.








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