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Getting Married: Steps to Take Before You Say I Do

Before you say "I Do," there are some crucial things you need to do to protect yourself and your assets. Learn how marriage will impact your legal and financial status and create the documents you need to safeguard you and your partner.

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Prenuptial Agreement

A Prenuptial Agreement is a contract used by two people who are about to marry and wish to sort out current and future financial and property matters ...

Last updated May 10, 2023

Marriage is more than just a celebration of love—it’s a legal commitment to another person.

In this guide, we’ll discuss what you should know before getting married or remarried, how to get married in the United Kingdom, and how marriage impacts you legally and financially.

What is a marriage?

Marriage is the union of two people. It’s considered a legal and personal commitment. 

When two people marry, they become responsible for one another's well-being. As such, a married person typically gains certain legal benefits and responsibilities that we'll go over later in this guide.

What is a civil partnership?

A civil partnership is a type of union between two people in which they gain the same or similar rights as married folks

Unlike a marriage, you don’t need a ceremony to form a civil partnership. But, besides some different administrative processes, these two types of unions share many of the same legal and financial benefits

Civil partners also need to meet the legal requirements (which are the same as for getting married) and register their relationship status. 

What rights do unmarried couples have?

Unmarried couples typically aren’t entitled to spousal maintenance or financial support if their relationship ends. 

However, certain laws may give unmarried couples rights to property and child custody depending on their situation.

It’s important to note that, in the UK, there is no legal recognition for common-law couples—a term people sometimes use interchangeably with civil partnerships. Rather, unmarried couples who choose not to register as civil partners typically need contracts to retain certain rights.

Property rights

When it comes to property rights in England and Wales, the Inheritance (Provisions for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 allows unmarried couples the right to claim each other’s estates if one dies. The couple must’ve lived together in a conjugal relationship (i.e., as if they were married or civil partners) for at least two years before one partner died. 

Otherwise, if you aren’t on the title deed of the property, you likely won’t have any ownership rights (unless you can prove that you made contributions to the purchase price). This is true in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Parental responsibility

The Children Act 1989 (England and Wales) outlines parental responsibility for mothers, fathers, and important people who’d like to fill the role of legal guardian. As such, if an unmarried couple has a child together, the father will have parental responsibility if he’s listed on the child’s birth certificate. A mother, however, is automatically responsible for her child after its birth. This is also true in Scotland and Northern Ireland

In England and Wales, anyone not listed on the child’s birth certificate must make an agreement with the child’s legal guardian or apply to the courts for parental responsibility. In Northern Ireland or Scotland, a father must either marry the child’s mother or become registered as a parent on the child’s birth certificate. 

Important conversations to have before getting married

Getting married is a big commitment, so it’s important to do your due diligence beforehand. 

That means you and your spouse should discuss topics such as:

  • Whether or not you wish to have kids in the future
  • How to treat children from a prior relationship
  • How to handle conflict and a potential separation
  • How to divide/share money and debts acquired before marriage


Make sure you’re on the same page as your partner about having kids and how you’d handle them if you ever separate

If you have children from a previous relationship and are planning to get married, it’s important to discuss how your new spouse will fit into your family dynamic. For instance, a stepparent may play a larger role in their stepchild’s life by adopting them. 

While adoption laws vary by country in the UK, you’ll typically go through a streamlined process when adopting a stepchild. For example, in England, stepparents can apply directly to the courts for an adoption order, rather than through an adoption agency. 

Of course, each situation is unique, and courts must consider who will honour the best interests of the child (especially when both biological parents are in the picture). In some cases, this means overriding a biological parent’s objection to adoption in favour of the stepparent. 

Whenever your family changes, consider creating or updating your Last Will and Testament. Having this document helps ensure your loved ones are looked after when you pass away. 


Naturally, even the best relationships experience problems. But, if you can handle the issues appropriately, conflict can be a healthy way to strengthen communication and trust between partners

Plan for conflict by discussing techniques for managing fights with your spouse. Similarly, consider how to avoid further disagreements should you decide to end the relationship and legally separate. 

A Prenuptial or Cohabitation Agreement helps reduce arguments over who gets what in a separation. These documents are especially important if you enter a relationship with significant assets and want to clarify what becomes shared and what remains separate. 

A Cohabitation Agreement goes into effect once you and your partner sign it. If your wedding date is uncertain or far into the future, you can use this agreement to protect your interests right away.

However, if you’re certain to make things official, it’s a good idea to create a Prenuptial Agreement. Prenups work for both marriages and civil partnerships.

If you already have a Cohabitation Agreement, you can include similar terms in your prenup. Just be sure to terminate the first contract before entering a new agreement.


Generally, unless you sign a Prenuptial Agreement, married spouses and civil partners become fully responsible for one another’s finances. That being said, you should know each other’s entire financial situation—including any debts or liabilities.

Decide what parts of your financial life you want to combine and what you’d like to keep separate. If there are any finances you’d like to own independently, consider signing a prenup. 

Similar to a Cohabitation Agreement, a prenup establishes who retains ownership of specific assets and debts. However, this contract only goes into effect once you marry or become civil partners.


You may be thinking, “Should we really get a prenup?”

But this contract isn’t just for couples with significant assets. It’s for any couple looking to protect their personal property

It might seem counterintuitive to discuss breaking up before you even get married, but you can never be sure what the future holds. It’s best to have this conversation with your partner beforehand, just in case. 

Create this legal document before marriage to set out each person’s current assets and liabilities and how to divide property if the union ends. This way, in the event of a marital breakdown, spouses don’t have any claim to assets that they designated separately in the prenup.

Prenuptial Agreements are only valid if signed before you’re married (or become registered partners) since many of your assets could later be classified as joint property.

How do I get married in the UK?

To get married legally in the United Kingdom, you must take the following steps:

1. Meet the requirements in your jurisdiction

For a marriage or civil partnership to be legal in Scotland, Northern Ireland, England, and Wales, it must meet the following requirements:

  • A person cannot marry until any previous marriage dissolves by death, divorce, or annulment
  • The spouses cannot be within prohibited degrees of relationship to each other (e.g., siblings)
  • You must be a UK citizen or have the proper visa/permit
  • Both spouses must give free and enlightened consent
  • A person must be at least the minimum legal age (varies by country)
Country Minimum Age
England & Wales 18
Scotland 16
Northern Ireland 18, or at least 16 with parental consent or court order (if suitable).

Although Northern Ireland permits people to marry at 16 years old, the Republic of Ireland may not legally recognize your relationship. This may also be true when travelling to other countries where the minimum age for marriage is higher.

2. Give notice to your local register office

Governments must approve your eligibility for marriage and the legal details of your ceremony. Plus, they keep records of the marriages and civil unions in their districts. 

As such, you’re required to give notice of your intent to marry at least 29 days (28 in Northern Ireland) before the ceremony. However, it’s best practice to send notice ten to twelve weeks in advance to ensure plenty of time for processing.

Send your notice form to a register office near you and check which additional documents they may require. For example, you’ll need papers to prove your name and home address.

3. Hold a ceremony

As long as you meet the legal requirements, you’re free to choose the kind of ceremony you want. Keep in mind that you must hold a ceremony within 12 months of giving notice, or you may need to re-apply with your local register office.

While you may personalize many aspects of your wedding ritual, there are two main types of ceremonies:

  • Religious: An authorized religious minister marries you in a registered religious building. In England and Wales, civil partnerships cannot hold religious ceremonies, though they may get a blessing after their ceremony.
  • Civil: A licensed marriage registrar marries you at an approved venue, such as a hotel or country club. You must have at least two witnesses. Typically, people don’t include any religious practices in civil ceremonies.

Both marriage and civil ceremonies should include the signing of legal documents to confirm the union. Wedding ceremonies should also have an exchange of vows. 

4. Register the marriage

The person who administers your ceremony will file the proper documents with your local register office. Once they document your union, you can apply to the register for a marriage or civil partnership certificate.

Marriage is more than a romantic promise to another person—it’s also a legal commitment. Here are the legal aspects of marriage to consider.

Changing your surname

When you sign your marriage schedule, it doesn’t automatically change your surname. It’s also not a legal requirement to change your surname after marriage. In fact, people are increasingly keeping their given names for many personal and economic reasons. 

There are no legal consequences for keeping your given name. However, if you have or want children, it may present a few minor obstacles if you don’t share a surname. For example, if you’re returning to the UK from a trip abroad, border officials may stop you to confirm you’re the child’s parent.

Generally, you can assume a name change without updating your legal certificates and IDs. In this case, simply contact the agencies where you’d like to update your information and show your marriage certificate for proof of your new relationship status. 

You’ll need a deed poll to change your name on legal documents (like your passport or licence) in Northern Ireland. This is a document in which you declare your name change and sign in front of witnesses. You can type your own deed poll or hire a solicitor to draft one for you. 

While you can use a deed poll in England and Wales, the marriage or civil partnership certificate is sufficient proof for a name change. 

In Scotland, your certificate will suffice as proof as well. You’ll need apply to the National Records of Scotland for a name change, which you must register once approved.

Testifying in court

A person cannot refuse to be a witness in a court case because they’re married to the person charged with a crime.

Generally, courts consider a spouse competent and compellable to testify during a criminal prosecution. Exceptions to this standard include when spouses are jointly accused of a crime.

These proceedings are regulated by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and apply to all countries in the UK.

Making healthcare decisions

Unless you make your spouse your proxy with a Lasting Power of Attorney, they don’t have the legal authority to make healthcare decisions on your behalf.

However, healthcare workers may ask for their views on treatment options and keep them updated on your health. To that end, you can create a Living Will to document your preferences regarding health care. Be sure to discuss these thoughts with your partner.

How does marriage impact my financial status?

From shared assets to joint benefits, marriage typically changes the way you handle your finances. 

Shared finances

If you’re in a long-term relationship, chances are you’ve already combined finances with your significant other. Many couples share a bank account to pay bills, such as rent, utilities, or phone plans.

Although it’s up to you to share access to certain accounts, once you’re married your spouse becomes entitled to a portion of your estate

If you separate or divorce, you may still be responsible for supporting your ex-spouse financially. To avoid this responsibility, you must agree to different terms during your separation. Or, you can specify spousal obligations and entitlements before your wedding day with a Prenuptial Agreement.

Although some people may be reluctant to sign a prenup, it’s especially beneficial if you have children from a previous relationship or have significant assets that you wish to keep separate.

Shared property

Once married, any assets (such as real estate, vehicles, and more) you and your spouse collect are known as joint property

Often, one of the most significant investments a married couple makes is their family home (and the furniture, appliances, and personal items they fill it with). 

Countries in the United Kingdom regulate the division of marital property during a divorce, and the laws vary by jurisdiction. Generally, both spouses have an equal right to occupy the family home (even if one spouse owned it before marriage) if they separate. Courts typically divide family property to meet everyone’s needs fairly, prioritising any children. However, certain property (e.g., inheritances or gifts) may be exempt.  

If you wish to have more control over property division during a divorce, create a contract to establish shared and separate property with your spouse and document your agreement. Courts often respect any property division terms that the spouses agreed to in a domestic contract (such as a Cohabitation Agreement, Prenuptial Agreement, or Separation Agreement) if the terms are fair.

Tax benefits

The UK has an independent tax system in which people are taxed as individuals, regardless of relationship status

However, you can apply for a marriage allowance that reduces the amount of taxes you pay by reducing your personal allowance. This applies to both marriages and civil partnerships.  

Consult an accountant to determine if a marriage allowance would benefit you.

Beneficiary status

If one spouse dies without creating a Last Will and Testament, most jurisdictions consider the surviving spouse the first person with a claim to the inheritance

Also, the surviving spouse typically gets a preferential share (e.g. half of the estate) when dividing the estate between family members. However, laws for estates and succession vary by country in the UK. 

To prevent disputes about who is entitled to what, create a new Last Will and Testament when you get married or enter a civil partnership to ensure it reflects your current wishes. 

If you want to allocate a certain portion of your estate to your significant other, do so explicitly in your Last Will. You should also specify which assets you want to leave to other family members and friends.

Getting remarried

If you’re thinking about getting remarried, you’re likely familiar with how the union legally binds you to your new partner.

As such, you may be more inclined to take a few steps to protect yourself, your family, and your future spouse.

Confirm your eligibility

Remember, to get remarried, you must ensure that your previous marriage or civil partnership was dissolved through divorce, annulment, or death.

This suggestion may seem absurd, but attempting to get married without being properly divorced happens. This is mainly because the difference between separation and divorce can be unclear.

A separation means a couple is not together anymore, but it doesn’t mean their relationship is legally ended. Married couples who separate might reconcile in the future and remain married.

To get divorced, the couple must apply to a court based on their marriage breaking down irretrievably. The process varies by country, but, generally, this can be established if:

  • The spouses live separate and apart for at least two years before the divorce proceeding
  • One spouse behaves unreasonably (e.g. physically or mentally abuses the other spouse)
  • One spouse deserts the other without their consent or providing a good reason
  • One spouse committed adultery 

Once a court grants a divorce, it will send you a final order or decree absolute (documents that confirm the legality of your separation). After this, you’re free to remarry or enter a new civil partnership.

Protect yourself with a Prenup

A Prenuptial Agreement seems ominous because it addresses how to divide family property after your relationship ends. Still, this agreement is beneficial, especially if you:

  • Have children with someone else
  • Want to protect anything that belonged to you before your relationship started
  • Want to avoid disagreements about current and future financial responsibilities

Prenups can save a lot of headaches (and heartaches) for you and your spouse if things don’t work out.

Update your estate plans

Do your estate documents still reference your previous relationship? Update your Power of Attorney and Last Will and Testament to reflect this new chapter of your life.

It’s impossible to know when you or your loved ones might need these documents, so to protect yourself, your family, and your future spouse, you should ensure your estate documents accurately reflect your current situation.

A good rule to follow is to update estate documents after significant life events (including having or adopting a child, purchasing a home, and more).

It's time to update your estate plans.

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