When my sister got married, at the rehearsal the celebrant said he had to be careful what he said and when because if he said 'too much' they would end up married sooner than they planned. Although this was a year or two ago a question has lingered: at what point in a ceremony, taking place in England and Wales, does the marriage become official?

This could affect legal rights such as inheritance in cases where a marriage ceremony was interrupted. For example, if Bob has a heart attack and dies at his marriage ceremony after exchanging vows with Mary but before they both sign the certificate, is Mary legally a widow (wife of the deceased) or would we say that legally the marriage never came into legal existence? What if Bob drops dead after exchanging vows and signing the certificate but before the officiant signs? What if Bob drops dead after all of those things but before the certificate is returned to the courthouse?

I'm not concerned with wedding scenes for TV and film because there are precursor steps leading up to the ceremony that would prevent an 'accidental' marriage. I'm also like to know if there are any differences between marriage and civil partnerships.

All the results my searches have returned are related to what conditions make a marriage legal rather than the point it becomes legal.


2 Answers 2


It's a fairly artificial question; the normal answer is "at the ceremony" and if a question should arise then, as Dale says, a judge or other officer would decide looking at all the evidence. However, as a technical matter, the act that completes a church wedding for legal purposes is signing the register; that creates a formal document that constitutes proof. The marriage certificate and form sent periodically by the church to the General Register Office are copies of the parish register (as the relevant website makes clear), and if the happy couple left without signing the register I would think they would have to come back later, and their marriage would technically date from the later day. But I can't imagine the point ever being more than hypothetical.

  • I think that's the answer I'm looking for. The actual point where it becomes legal is the signing of the register, whenever that may be after the vows. From this I understand a couple could reasonably think they were married if all they hadn't done was sign the register but if it came to a divorce not having signed the register could be critical.
    – BWFC
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 13:23

The celebrant was (hopefully) joking. They (should) know that you can’t get married accidentally. Marriage requires genuine consent of both parties which participation in a rehearsal denies is there.

Technically, the parties are married when all the legal formalities are complete. Practically, they are married when they believe they are.

Legally, they are married when the court considering the question in the case decides they are - a court would only be doing this if there was some issue that hinged on it and it would look at all the evidence. For example, if there were doubt about intention then the court might decide they were never married. Alternatively, even if the technical requirements were not met, the court might decide that they are married and if necessary the date/time this occurred.

  • 3
    The celebrant was certainly making a joke but I wouldn't bet my house on the fact he knew he was safe. The way I read your answer is there is no precise point in time where the marriage becomes legal. For example, it's not when the vicar says 'you may kiss the bride' or as soon as they sign the register, it's more that the process has, by and large, been correctly followed. Is that right?
    – BWFC
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 8:40
  • @BWFC we recently had an answer about a judge who calculated the distance traveled in feet by a vehicle moving at 60 or 70 km/h, to compare that distance to a witness's estimate of "70 or 80 feet." The judge performed the calculation to nine significant digits, nearly nanometer precision, which of course is ludicrous. For almost every purpose, you can determine whether the marriage occurred before or after another event by identifying the day on which it occurred. If greater precision is necessary, a judge can decide how to fix a specific time depending on the facts of the case.
    – phoog
    Commented Sep 23, 2023 at 7:31

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