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What does marriage mean legally?

By , on Tuesday September 6, 2022 at 1:14 pm

What, actually, is marriage?

What, actually, is marriage?

This is going to seem unromantic but, the reality is, marriage is a legal arrangement. The wedding is where you have the lovely dress, friends and family celebrating, big cake, first dance and the rest of it, but marriage is a legally binding contract.

What changes legally when you get married?

Marriage ties you together financially

Getting married ties a couple together in the eyes of the law in a number of ways. Most significantly perhaps, when a couple ties the knot, their assets – and liabilities – are considered to be joint. This does not change unless a marriage is dissolved through divorce.

The union of assets, for instance, will extend to things like:

  • Bank accounts
  • Property
  • Savings
  • Pensions
  • Debts
  • Inherited wealth

It is incredibly important that people understand this fact before walking down the aisle. There are even calls for a compulsory information session for all before they get married to ensure they fully understand the consequences and go into the union with their eyes open.

Once people understand the contract created by marriage and how it is enshrined in UK law, they could be more predisposed to getting a pre-nuptial agreement. This can help to safeguard assets taken into a marriage in the event of a divorce further down the line. If not, it will all be considered as joint assets to then be split as part of any settlement.

Marriage changes inheritance rights

If you do not have a valid Will, your spouse will normally inherit all or most of your estate (depending on the size of the estate and what other living relatives you have). Even if you do have a Will before marriage, getting married will invalidate it.

It is therefore really important to make a new Will when getting married (or divorced for that matter) that clearly sets out your wishes for your estate in the event of your death.

Is marriage a legal contract?

Yes, marriage is a legally binding contract. In law it creates certain legal rights and responsibilities on the parties as mentioned above in relation to inheritance, but also in relation to property, other assets and liabilities and in relation to the care of any children of the marriage.

What is a marriage contract?

Whilst a couple signs the register and receives a marriage certificate when they marry there is no formal written contract setting out the terms of the marriage. Instead, rights are provided under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 and the Civil Partnership Act 2004.

A pre marriage contact is another name sometimes given to a pre-nuptial agreement or ‘pre-nup’. This is an agreement between the couple getting married that states how their assets would be divided if they were one day to divorce. In essence an attempt to mitigate the legal implications of marriage.

What legal rights does marriage provide?

Marriage provides some key legal rights that it is important to understand:

  • Property and other assets – As mentioned above, when you marry, your assets will be considered jointly owned. If this gives you cause for concern or if you have a particular desire to ringfence your assets take specialist legal advice and consider a prenuptial agreement before marriage.
  • Pensions – Pensions are generally considered to be marital assets, meaning your spouse will normally have certain rights over your pension and vice versa. Again, you must take expert advice on this to ensure you fully understand the implications.
  • Children – Being married can make the issue of parental responsibility for any children you have simpler. Birth mothers automatically have parental responsibility (giving them legal rights and duties towards their children) but second parents may or may not have this, depending on the situation. Being married to the birth mother usually means you will also automatically have parental responsibility.
  • Inheritance – As covered above, your spouse will usually be the main inheritor should you predecease them, unless you have a Will that states otherwise.
  • Tax – You can normally transfer assets tax-free between spouses (including when one spouse dies).

What are the pros and cons of marriage?

Of course, there are pros and cons to this legal arrangement of being married. It is, for many, a benefit and joy to have your assets amalgamated, for purchases from then on being jointly owned and for you to share all that you have with your partner.

There are other benefits to being married also. Many co-habiting couples assume that they have this “protection” for purchases when they are living together. However, the law currently does not recognise this. It is only through being married that the couple are seen to have joint assets. This has caught out many couples living together, who relied on the myth of common law husband or wife, and who end up ruing the decision not to tie the knot.

In the “cons” column for being married, well I guess you could ask any couple and they would have a thousand suggestions! The reality though is that you could take on the debt of a partner or find that long-treasured possessions, valuable assets or significant inheritances are lost – in part or in whole – if you were to split further down the line. You are effectively relinquishing control over your own assets. Again, a prenuptial agreement can help safeguard this, but they are still seen by many as unromantic.

It is important to note that if a couple does end the legal contract of marriage, a former partner can still have claims over the ex’s assets – even those accrued after divorce – without a consent order in place drawing a line under their finances. It is important to ask a specialist family lawyer about this if you are thinking of divorce.

Our lawyers’ advice for someone getting married

Advice for a couple about to marry

Talk to Woolley & Co Solicitors about the legal implications of marriage

So, there you have it. Marriage is a contract in law that can only be dissolved through divorce in the UK. And, as with any contract, you should always seek specialist legal advice before entering into it.

At Woolley & Co Solicitors, our expert family lawyers can offer specialist advice on the legal implications of marriage, as well as options such as prenuptial agreements. If your marriage is ending, we can also support you through your divorce.

To take advantage of your free 30-minute consultation with an expert local family law solicitor, call 0800 321 3832 or complete our quick online form.

Karen Agnew-Griffith
Divorce and family lawyer Thetford

Blog Author - Karen Agnew-Griffith

Karen Agnew-GriffithKaren Agnew-Griffith

Karen is a divorce and family lawyer with Woolley & Co, based in Norfolk, but she acts for clients across the UK, including Suffolk, Hertfordshire and London, and worldwide.


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