How Does Society Currently View Marriage in England and Wales?
Following National Marriage Week 2023 (7-14 February 2023), FLiP Director Charlotte Symes looks at how society currently views marriage in England and Wales.
It was recently National Marriage Week, a time to reflect on whether this concept is still the foundation for couples to build a life together, or whether it is an outdated institution. On Monday 27 February 2023, the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022 will come into effect, raising the legal age for a person to get married to 18. There will be no exception with parental consent. This change reflects the change to society and in particular opportunities for women, who are now marrying later and having children later. In 2021, the average age of women getting married was 33 and for men it was 35. Increasing the legal age limit for marriage therefore seems a logical consequence.
Marriage remains popular and studies show that couples who marry are more likely to stay together. Divorce rates are the lowest they have been since the 1970s and yet the breakdown of families is overall very high. From a legal perspective, I see the benefit of marriage being a driver for the discussion and decision making around financial decisions. More people than ever are considering a pre-nuptial agreement as a way to regulate their finances during marriage and in the event of a divorce. I see these agreements as insurance policies to marriage: something a couple hopes to never use but if needed, it is invaluable in avoiding lengthy court disputes over the distribution of money. Even if people do not sign a pre-nuptial agreement, being educated about the treatment of capital and income in the event of a divorce under our legal system, is critical. Many countries require a couple to sign a legal document at the point of marriage, to confirm whether they wish to own their property separately or together. We do not have that system in England and many people get married without understanding the financial consequences.
The pandemic saw an enforced challenge to getting married as weddings were postponed once, twice and possibly more times to the point where some couples decided not to get married at all and focus on buying a house or starting a family. Societal expectations are changing and it is no longer expected that a couple be married before they have a child together; indeed in 2021, more than half of babies (51%) were born to unmarried mothers in England and Wales. For the first time since records began in 1845 there are now more babies born to unmarried mothers. Positive changes mean women are no longer subjected to the stigma of having children outside of marriage nor are children subjected to the term ‘illegitimate’. Marriage was extended to homosexual couples from 13 March 2014 and yet some couples, whether heterosexual and homosexual, would still opt for a civil partnership, which is often seen as a more progressive and secular alternative to marriage.
Our legal system has not caught up with societal change. Too many unmarried couples still believe in the existence of a ‘common law marriage’ and therefore believe they have rights arising from their relationships. This is a myth. In England & Wales cohabitants do not have any financial claims beyond what is set out in property law; it makes no difference whether cohabitants are in a relationship or for how long. Where there are children, there are claims for capital provision for children in limited circumstances, and child maintenance.
Freedom to decide whether to marry or not must be welcomed but I would encourage taking family law advice to provide an understanding about the legal consequences of each option. I often meet with individuals considering marriage or planning to build a life together with someone, to consider the legal impact of each option.
Charlotte Symes is a Director at Family Law in Partnership, a collaborative practitioner and mediator. She deals with complex financial issues arising from divorce and separation. Her work has a strong international dimension. As a French speaker she has the expertise to advise French clients and on cases with a French element.