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After the long battle to get same sex marriage introduced in law in England and Wales, this month will see the first same sex weddings take place.
When the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 comes into force on 29 March 2014, same sex marriage will become lawful.
Couples will be able to get married at a register office or any civil ceremony venue approved by the local council. Unlike heterosexual couples, same sex weddings can only take place in religious premises where permission has been given by the specific religious organisation and the premises have also been approved by the local council. Couples will not be able to have same sex weddings in an Anglican church but other religious couples should check with their own organisation.
Not only is marriage a lifelong commitment, it also brings with it legal rights and responsibilities that any couple getting married should be aware of. These include issues surrounding next of kin, inheritance rights and various financial claims in the event of a divorce. Generally, those rights and responsibilities will be the same as those for heterosexual couples who are married.
There will also be some differences in the divorce ‘facts’ available to same sex couples. For example, the fact of adultery is only available where someone has engaged in sexual acts outside of the marriage with someone of the opposite sex. There will no doubt be further discussion regarding the definition of adultery and amending this to include all couples, regardless of sexual orientation.
Those same sex couples getting married should consider entering into a pre-nuptial agreement if they have inherited, business or extensive assets which they wish to protect in the event of marital breakdown. Pre-nuptial agreements are becoming increasingly common and although not strictly legally enforceable in England and Wales, they are given significant weight by the courts if entered into freely, without duress and with independent legal advice. Pre-nuptial agreements are likely to become even more popular following the recent Law Commission paper suggesting that they become legally binding if certain requirements are met.
Whilst the new law will allow those currently in civil partnerships to enter into marriages, the conversion process to marriage has yet to be finalised. A gay couple from Barnsley are currently considering legal action against the Government as they wish to convert their civil partnership to marriage when the new same sex marriage laws come into force in March, as under current legislation, they would have to obtain a dissolution (AKA divorce) first. Their solicitors have written to the Department for Culture, Media & Sport to inform the Government of potential judicial review action if the issue is not resolved satisfactorily.