Can't decide on the best way to legally register your marriage? Struggling to get your head around 'doing it twice'? Don't even really know WHY you have to do it separately? Read on...
Having a celebrant ceremony in England or Wales means that if you want to be considered legally married or in a civil partnership, you will have to do that process separately. Humanist ceremonies aren't currently legally recognised here (but they are in Scotland and Northern Ireland - go here to see how we are trying to change that!) This means that to be married or civil partnered in the eyes of the law In England and Wales, you have to say the magic words (AKA boring legal declaratory statements) with a registrar (or a religious leader if you're that way inclined). You don’t have to exchange rings or make a big deal out of this process at all - unless you want to!
'Sounds a bit weird... so which one is our 'real' wedding day?! When is our anniversary if we do the legal bit on a different day?' Well, think of it as being like when a child is born: you celebrate the date of their birth, not the date when you go to the council office and fill in a form to register their birth. With your wedding, you can still celebrate the date and anniversary of your big day (the one where you get all dressed up and say gorgeous personal vows in front of all your friends and family) rather than the legal transaction with Sandra at the Town Hall. I can guarantee that it's the celebrant ceremony which you will remember as the 'real' one.
Really, the decision you need to make about how and when to do the legals boils down to 3 factors. I'm going to call them the F Factors because I am nothing if not original. They are:
Financial: Having a celebrant isn't the cheapest option for your wedding day, so you need to consider how much more money you are willing to pay out to the council for what is essentially a 10 minute process.
Family: Do you have more than two people who would just have to come along to see you do the legals? Or people who can't make the big day, and who you would like to include in the legal bit instead?
Fannying around: The more involved you make the legal bit, the more logistical arrangements you will need to make. If you thrive on planning and organising then fill your boots; if not, maybe keep it a little more simple and just rock up on a Tuesday morning in jeans and trainers.
Whichever way you choose to do it, you can only sort your legal registration a maximum of 12 months out from the date you want to book for. You will also need to arrange an appointment to give notice, where you take your ID documents and prove that you do actually know each other (and that you're not related!)
In this blog, some of my previous kickass couples explain the choices they made for their legal registration, why they made them, and provide some tips and advice for planning your own. I’ve split them into 3 categories: ‘keeping it simple’; ‘making more of an effort with it’, and ‘doing it on the same day’.
Keeping it simple: booking a 2+2 or statutory registration
Each council area has a responsibility to offer a basic, low-cost ceremony which involves just the two of you and two witnesses. These aren't always well advertised, and you might need to ask about them specifically. They are often only offered at one certain office within the region (although you don't necessarily have to do it in the region you live in so if you are willing to travel there will be more options). Usually, they are only available on days and times designed to be unappealing (like 9:30am on a Tuesday morning) and you may well be warned that you that 'it won't be in a nice room, just an office with a filing cabinet and a photocopier.' But all that is perfect if you want to make this bit as transactional and separate from your big day as possible, as these couples did:
OLWYN AND ARRON - QUICK AND EASY
We had a 2+2 ceremony and it was hardly any extra work! We did the legal bit purely because we ‘had to.’ It was no extra dress or work BUT was no where near as fun as reliving our story/ writing our vows during our Kickass planning. It felt okay... It was inevitably special because of being ‘legally married.’ However it was very formulaic and didn’t represent us as a couple. All in all, it was a nice moment to share with our two selected witnesses however nothing stood out as being particularly romantic, funny or emotional! We did go for a huge Chinese and lots of Prosecco after the legal ceremony as it would have felt weird for us to go straight back to work.
OLWYN AND ARRON'S TOP TIP: You do you! Make the legal bit as much as an event or non-event as feels right for you as a couple. We picked a nice building and two special witnesses, but didn’t buy new clothes and won’t celebrate our legal wedding anniversary
Ellie and edward - A BIT OF A NIGHTMARE (the legal bit. not them)
We had a registrar basic jobby! Us and our mums, no rings, but I did wear a veil. It was a bloody nightmare to arrange! We had to rethink our plans when our venue cancelled and when we tried to reorganise for just the statutory registration they kept booking us in for a full ceremony and we had to redo everything. Then we had to travel an hour out of town to the nearest registry office they could fit us in for as our local one only does deaths now… We wished you could have legally married us! It was so hot in there and we were all sweating our tits off. It didn’t feel real because we weren’t classing it as our day. We had a nice meal afterwards!
ELLIE AND EDWARD'S TOP TIP: Don’t exchange rings, make it as minimal as possible. We wanted our celebration to be the main event and so we kept everything for then.
VIC AND WILL - question everything!
When we first looked into it, we thought we'd have to have both ceremonies (humanist and civil) at the venue on the same day, because the person I spoke to on the phone didn't give me the option of the basic 2+2! It was only when I went back to Louise and questioned it, that I realised she omitted the option entirely. We also had difficulty with the local council to agree to let us have the civil ceremony after the humanist. They argued that it HAD to come before. I questioned this with them and asked them to prove where this rule was written?
And to be fair, they came back to say well that's just how it was always done! No one had ever questioned it before and so they'd never actually dug deeper to find out why and that in fact, it wasn't stated anywhere that this was the case and that we could in fact hold the civil bit afterwards!
After all that, we decided we didn't have to have a full civil ceremony at all and opted for the cheap basic on a different day beforehand instead, as we didn't want to take anything away from our humanist ceremony!
VIC AND WILL'S TOP TIP: Treat it however you want to. If it means nothing, go and get it done and sign that bit of paper. If part of you wants to get excited because you're legally bound then embrace it. But I would absolutely do it on a different day and treat it as something else entirely, like choosing your rings, trying your dress on. It's all part of the build up to the real big day.
Keeping it simple... BUT WITH A FEW MORE GUESTS
It might be that you want to keep it simple, but too many people want to be there to witness 'the legal bit' so a 2+2 won't work. It can also be a way to include people who aren't able to make it to your big day.
Emily and peter - filling out a form
We had us, our 2 boys, our mums and our stepdads. We had crossed out everything but the legal bare minimum, and we were in there 10 minutes. We got a couple of nice photos outside then went home. For us it was just the legal paperwork bit, not our wedding. The legal bit was more stressful to arrange than our wedding day. I'm so glad we did it separately, best decision we made. The legal bit was boring, in a stuffy old room with no personality and it wasn't about us as a couple, it was about filling out a form. Cutting it back to the minimum requirements worked for us. We saw it as exactly what it was: signing a document.
Jonny and Rosie's small but super special ceremony
We had a legal ceremony a few days before the big day. The Thursday was super special because it was such a small group and the grandparents could be there to see and hear stuff but it was very short and had nothing personal. It was nice, but the communication from the registry office was pretty much non-existent. We didn't get the choice of vows until a couple of days before...didn't know we could have a reading...no idea how it would work... We added in two readings the day before?!
JONNY AND ROSIE'S TOP TIP: Don't be afraid to contact them first and do some research beforehand. All of those things could really stress people out!
Making more of an effort with it
Tash and brad's cute indie film moment
Whilst we didn’t put any real emphasis on the legal ceremony being our wedding, it was the only ceremony my Nan could attend so we definitely made an effort. We didn't personalise it in any way (we already had an excellent personalised wedding to look forward to 😏) but we didn’t take anything out. We did it the day before our actual wedding and had entry music, vows, rings etc. We dressed up nicely with just 8 people in attendance , and we decorated the table for the lunch afterwards and we got some nice photos. So we did make it a part of our wedding rather than just document signing. But had my Nan been able to make the wedding, it probably would have been a bit more low key (except not much, because I felt like the star of a cute indie film going for coffee with my husband-to-be, all dressed up in our wedding stuff, on a random Wednesday morning - it all felt very romantic!)
It actually wasn’t much extra effort to arrange at all. I have no regrets about how we did it. It gave us the best of both worlds because I always thought ‘what if we just did the registry office and the pub?’ So we did that - and then I did the big grand expensive wedding afterwards! And, honestly, it felt like a good practice run! I was already nervous about the whole ‘formal wedding, walking down an aisle, everyone looking at me’ thing, so doing a mini version first definitely gave me the reassurance that I wasn’t going to trip in my heels or you know, throw up whilst trying to say 'I do'.
TASH AND BRAD'S TOP TIP: Do it in whatever way you feel comfortable - it’s just the legal documents, it’s not your wedding, so there’s no pressure... but similarly, if you ever wanted two weddings, here’s your chance!
doing it on the same day
This is not something I generally recommend, for several reasons. For one, it means your day will be incredibly busy and you will have to have super tight timings and be mega organised. It can also become prohibitively expensive, especially if you want a registrar to come to your venue to do the legal ceremony there on the day. This is not something I have ever done, but I have heard that it can be difficult to arrange and that some registrars will insist that all of the legal stuff is done beforehand and totally separately from the celebrant ceremony, which again adds in a lot of extra logistics and pressure on the day. You could also go to the registry office earlier in the day, like Ness and Ross did...
Ness and Ross's School play experience
We had the bare legal minimum we could get away with. We wanted to do both ceremonies on the same day because in my head the celebrant ceremony was the real one so why should it not be the date that our marriage legally started. You don't have to do it that way at all and I imagine more people choose not to do it the same day for ease. We'd have opted for just taking our two sisters as witnesses if we thought our parents would let us get away with it, but it ended up being parents, siblings and grandparents.
It gave my grandparents the opportunity to watch us get married which meant the absolute world to me (and to them!) They were able to use the pass that should have been for my bridal car so they got dropped off right outside and I just strolled across town in a white jumpsuit to get there instead. They'd never have managed to make it through the longer ceremony at our main venue, especially with the added length of travel time.
That said, if it hadn't been for the two of them, it would have been the most infuriating and pointless waste of our time. The legal ceremony only meant something to us because of my grandparents. In every other aspect, it meant nothing. My sister commented that she has been really nervous about how our celebrant ceremony would go down, because we couldn't have looked more uncomfortable and awkward in our legal ceremony. We can both honestly say it was one of the worst experiences. The staff were nice enough, but there is something really uncomfortable about bringing what is meant to be such a magical day, down to the bare bones of basically a verbal, legal contract, just because you want to get the job done as quickly as possible. Nothing we said to one another in that ceremony had any real emotion behind it. The best comparison I can offer is it felt like we were just going through the motions and reading lines in a school play our parents had come to watch! We did exchange rings in the ceremony so my grandparents could watch us do that bit, but we just took them straight off afterwards. You don't have to do that part if you don't want.
NESS AND ROSS'S TOP TIPS: If you're doing both on the same day, just wear relaxed clothes in comparison and minimal hair and makeup and then you still get that "first look" moment later (Ross just wore a nice shirt and trousers and I just wore a white jumpsuit) Also, be prepared for the extra time it takes out of your getting ready period in the morning.
So, there you have it! Plenty of options so that you can decide what works best for you and your circumstances. If you still have questions, get in touch and I will do my best (but please note that I don't actually have anything to do with legally registering marriages so please don't sue me if I don't know the answers).
Of course, if you're thinking 'this is ridiculous, why aren't Humanist ceremonies legally recognised already like they are in Scotland and Northern Ireland?!' all I can say is TELL ME ABOUT IT. You can read all about why it's like this, what Humanists UK are doing about it, and how you can support the campaign here.
I’m Louise Gather, and I am your go-to for kickass gatherings!
My specialty is writing and performing wedding ceremonies that are both heartfelt and hilarious – I can guarantee laughter, fun, and happy tears! I absolutely love my job, because every couple’s story and every wedding day is completely unique.