Can You Get Married Online?

Can You Get Married Online?

Published on: March 28, 2023 (Updated on: April 28, 2024)

Introduction

One of the many questions that came with the coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19) was the possibility of getting married online and its legality. Online wedding also known as virtual wedding dispenses physical presence of the intending parties (bride and groom), officiating minister or registrar and witnesses as they could be in different locations.

The lockdown restrictions during the pandemic prevented free movement of people as well as large public gatherings amongst many other things. The effect of this restriction on the social life of citizens in different parts of the world drove them to find solace in technological advancement in order to meet their desired needs. One of such use of technology to improve the social life of people was the use of online software to facilitate wedding ceremony between intending parties. While online wedding was possible to meet societal needs, this article aims to examine the legality of online wedding in Nigeria, the UK, and the US.

Meaning of Online wedding

Before proceeding with the meaning of online wedding, it is pertinent to attempt a definition of two singular terms; ‘marriage’ and ‘online’.

The term ‘marriage’ in accordance with statutory law is the voluntary union between a man and a woman for life to the exclusion of any other1. Marriage, according to customary definition, is the union of one man to more than one wife. Both forms of marriage are accepted under Family Law in Nigeria and are recognized by the Marriage Act 2004, the primary legislation for the celebration of marriage in Nigeria.

These two forms of marriages recognized under Nigerian Laws are briefly discussed below;

  1. Marriage under the Act or Statutory Marriage - this is the celebration of wedding in accordance with the laid down procedures in the Marriage Act. Intending parties to a marriage who choose this form of marriage must abide by the procedures regarding the places where wedding can be legally celebrated. The Act recognizes only three places to validly conduct a wedding. These places will be discussed in the course of this article.
  2. Traditional Marriage/Customary Marriage - this is the celebration of wedding in accordance with the customs or traditions of the intending parties. There is no universal procedure to be followed for the celebration of customary wedding as the practices of customs vary from one ethnic group to another.

The term ‘online’ means an activity performed using the internet, computer or other computer networks. Generally, some activities that can be performed both physically (on-site) and online, give the end-user the option of making an alternate choice of one over the other at any given time. There are also other activities where the choice of use by the end-user is restricted to either online or physical. Where this is the case, a person cannot choose an online service where only physical/on-site option is made available and vice versa.

Online wedding therefore means the celebration of a union between a man and a woman through virtual means such as zoom.

Marriage under the Act

In Nigeria, a wedding celebration is a fundamental requirement of a valid marriage. The wedding celebration will only be valid where parties conduct it in any of the places recognized by the Act. The Act recognizes only three places where wedding can be validly celebrated. These places are; marriage registry, a licensed place of worship and a licensed place other than the registry or licensed place for worship.

Marriage Registry2 - this is commonly referred to as court marriage. Marriage celebration in the registry is highly procedural and intending parties to the marriage must follow the process as spelt out below;

  1. a notice of intention to marry in a prescribed form would be signed by one of the intending parties to the marriage and given to the Registrar of Marriages of the district where the marriage is intended to take place.
  2. the Registrar will thereafter register the notice in a ‘marriage notice book’ and publish the notice of intention to marry on the outer door of his office for at least 3 months. The purpose of publishing the notice is to give room for objection from any member of the public.
  3. if there are no objections after twenty-one days but within three months of the publication of the notice, the Registrar will issue a ‘certificate to marry’ to the intending parties after they have paid a prescribed fee. The ‘certificate to marry’ is proof that no objection was made to the marriage and the intending parties are free to get married. It is worth noting that where the intending parties fail to celebrate their marriage within the three-month notice period, the notice becomes ineffective and a fresh notice will have to be given before the parties can lawfully marry.

After the intending parties have obtained their ‘certificate to marry’, they can decide to celebrate their marriage either in the registry or in a licensed place of worship. If the intending parties choose to get married in the registry, the Act specifies some further requirements that must be observed. They are:

  1. the marriage must be conducted in the Registrar’s office.
  2. the door must be opened.
  3. the marriage must be celebrated in the presence of two witnesses in the Registrar’s office.
  4. the ceremony must be between the hours of 10am to 4pm.
  5. immediately after the marriage celebration, the marriage certificate must be signed by the registrar, the parties (bride and groom) and the witnesses.

Licensed Place of Worship3 - another place recognized by the Act where marriage can be validly conducted is a licensed place of worship by any recognized minister of the place of worship. A licensed place of worship is usually a church or mosque. If the marriage is celebrated in a church that is not licensed, the marriage will not be valid.

The same additional requirements in the registry are applicable to the licensed place of worship. That is; the marriage must be conducted in a building that has been licensed by the minister, it must be conducted between the hours of 8am to 6pm, it must be conducted in the presence of at least two witnesses alongside the officiating minister, the doors must be opened during the ceremony. Immediately after the celebration of marriage, the marriage certificate must be signed by the officiating minister, the parties and the witnesses.

Any Place Licensed by the Minister4 - the Act makes provision for the celebration of marriage at any other place apart from the registry or licensed place of worship, in so far as the Minister grants a license for the place to be used to celebrate the marriage. However, the marriage celebration must be conducted by a recognized minister of a religious denomination or the registrar of marriage.

Position of online wedding in Nigeria

As previously stated, online wedding is the use of internet facilities or computer networks to conduct a marriage celebration. Online wedding when construed side by side with the requirements of celebrating a valid marriage in accordance with the Marriage Act, portrays a total deviation from Nigerian Law. The necessary requirements for a valid marriage in accordance with the Act which celebration of online wedding dispenses with are:

  1. the need for marriage to be celebrated in a physical building or venue.
  2. the physical presence of the intending parties (bride and groom), officiating ministers and witnesses in the same place.
  3. the signing of the marriage certificate immediately after the marriage celebration by the registrar or minister, parties to the marriage and witnesses.

It is evident that these requirements can only be complied with where the intending parties, officiating minister and witnesses are physically present in the same place and time. It is impracticable to meet these requirements in the celebration of online wedding. Celebration of online wedding is contrary to the clear and straightforward provisions for conducting a valid marriage in Nigeria as ‘online’ is not part of the recognized places for conducting a valid marriage. In addition, The Matrimonial Causes Act states succinctly that any marriage celebrated in any place other than the three recognized places listed above shall be null and void5

Are there countries where online wedding is valid?

Just like Nigeria, many countries in the world require the physical presence of the intending parties, the officiating minister and witnesses for the marriage celebration to be valid. However, some countries that recognize online weddings are:

  1. United States of America - the Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo in May 2020 legalized online wedding by issuing an Executive Order.6 Not too long after, other states like California, Colorado, Ohio and Washington legalized online wedding.
  2. United Arab Emirates - legalization of online wedding was done by the Justice Ministry of UAE which is in charge of registering marriages. It achieved this by launching an online wedding service for intending couples.7

Can couples living in different countries conduct a legally valid wedding online?

The celebration and validity of online wedding between different nationals is based on whether the country where the marriage is conducted recognizes and approves virtual wedding. This article will consider online wedding celebrated people resident in separate countries below:

Validility of online wedding in the UK and the US

The United States recognizes online wedding, while the United Kingdom does not recognize online wedding as constituting a legal marriage as it requires the physical presence of both parties in a place approved by the law. Where nationals from both the UK and the US get married online, the marriage will be valid in the US. Even though online wedding is not valid in the UK however, it becomes valid in this instance where it was conducted in a country where online wedding is recognized and the parties have complied to the necessary procedures in the US. This is In accordance with the Foreign Marriage Act 1892.8

Online wedding involving a Nigerian resident and a US resident

Nigerian law does not outrightly prohibit/prevent online weddings. Rather, it spells out the places where a marriage can be validly conducted, and because ‘online’ is not one of the valid places recognized, it makes online wedding legally void. Where nationals from both the US and Nigeria get married online, the marriage will be valid in the US but not in Nigeria where online wedding is not legally valid. In Nigeria, the party remains unmarried in the eyes of the law. What is required to do in such an instance is for the parties involved to legalise the marriage by following the provisions of the Nigerian Act.

Conclusion

Regardless of the technological advancement in aiding a plethora of issues necessary to meet the shortcomings of physical/onsite presence, it remains clear that online wedding is not legally recognized in Nigeria as it fails to meet the requirement of a valid marriage celebration.

1 Hyde v Hyde and Wodmanse [1866]

2 Section 21 Marriage Act

3 Section 27 Marriage Act

4 Section 13 Marriage Act

5 Section 33 Marriage Act

6 https://en.as.com/en/2020/05/27/other_sports/1590545661_862024.html

7 https://arab.news/mtm8n

8 https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Vict/55-56/23/section/1/1991-02-01

Author:

Preye Ezonfade, LLB