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Are you really married? What makes a valid marriage in law

In a follow up to Nicola Caffery’s blog on the case of the billionaire hedge fund executive claiming that his marriage in Malawi did not constitute a valid wedding , Kayleigh Biswas sets out the law in relation to marriages at a time when it is becoming increasingly common to marry in exotic locations.

In determining whether a marriage which has taken place abroad is valid, the following criteria must usually be met:

  • The marriage ceremony must be recognised as a valid marriage ceremony by the law of the country in which the marriage takes place. This includes complying with any formalities imposed by that country. For example, the country may have its own law specifying the number of witnesses required.
  • The parties to the marriage must have capacity to marry, in the place where they are domiciled at the time of the marriage. By way of guidance, a person is usually domiciled where they have their fixed and permanent abode, although this is not always the case. It is possible to be a non-UK national and still be domiciled in the UK.
  • Any previous marriage of either party must be validly terminated, in the eyes of English law.
  • There should be evidence of the marriage, e.g. a marriage certificate or an equivalent document. It is good practice to have a foreign marriage certificate translated and certified.

The most infamous case calling into question the validity of a foreign marriage ceremony is likely to be the union of Rolling Stones front man Mick Jagger and supermodel Jerry Hall. The famous couple entered into a ceremony officiated by a Hindu priest in Bali in 1990. However, when divorce proceedings were subsequently issued by Ms Hall in 1999, Mr Jagger denied that they were ever legally married. The case proceeded to the High Court, where the Judge determined that the marriage was not valid under Indonesian or English Law. The marriage was declared null and void, despite the fact that the parties had been in a relationship for 21 years and had 4 children together.

In most instances where a marriage is accepted for immigration purposes, it is safe to assume that the marriage is valid under English Law. However, there are caveats, particularly in relation to religious marriage ceremonies.

So how can you be sure that your religious marriage ceremony is valid? In England, it is a long established rule that the law will (wherever possible) presume a lawful marriage in circumstances where the parties have cohabited for a long period of time and have acquired the reputation of being married but there is no supporting document, e.g. a marriage certificate. However, this is a rebuttable presumption which will fail where there is clear evidence that the parties were not married lawfully.

If you are querying the validity of your marriage, you should speak to a solicitor at the earliest opportunity. Cases concerning the validity of a foreign or religious marriage ceremony often have very individual facts and therefore the outcome will very much depend on your specific circumstances. At Rayden Solicitors we have a wealth of experience and expertise in dealing with validity of marriage and divorce, and can provide you with discreet and confidential advice, and our top expertise.

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