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Communtity Law Manual | Relationships & break-ups | Marriages, civil unions and de facto relationships

Marriages, civil unions and de facto relationships


Who can get married

Marriage Act 1955, s 2, 15, 17, 18; Family Proceedings Act 1980, s 31

Marriage is a formalised legal relationship between two people. Two people can get married if:

  • neither of them is currently married or in a civil union with someone else, and
  • they’re 18 or older, or, if either or both of them are aged 16 or 17, they’ve got permission from a Family Court Judge to get married, and
  • they’re not closely related by blood, marriage, civil union or adoption (a list of the kinds of relationships that are forbidden is in Schedule 2 of the Marriage Act 1955).

Same-sex couples can get married: marriage is legally defined as “the union of two people, regardless of their sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity”. However, although same-sex couples can marry, ministers and priests can legally refuse to marry a same-sex couple on religious grounds.

Note: If you’re 16 or 17, you’ll need permission from a Family Court Judge to get married. Previously, 16 and 17 year olds could get married if they had their parents’ permission, and they didn’t have to go to the Family Court. The law was changed in August 2018 as part of an effort to prevent forced marriages of girls and young women: see below, “Forced marriages”.

How you get married: The process

Marriage Act 1955, ss 21, 23, 24, 30

You’ll need to apply for a marriage licence by completing a “Notice of Intended Marriage” and filing it with the Registrar of Marriages for your area, along with the necessary consents from parents or guardians if either or both of you are under 18.

You can apply online for the licence, or you can download copies of the notice and the consent forms, at

The notice includes a statutory declaration (a formal statement), which one of you will have to sign in front of a Registrar of Marriages at a Births, Deaths and Marriages office. You’ll also have to pay a fee. If either of you have been married or in a civil union before, you’ll need to give the registrar a copy of the dissolution (divorce) order.

After you’ve filed your notice and at least three days have passed, the registrar will issue you with a licence allowing the wedding to go ahead.

The wedding has to take place within three months after the licence is issued. You must be married by a registered marriage celebrant. This includes ministers, Registrars of Marriage, and people who’ve been officially approved as marriage celebrants.

How marriages end

How does a marriage formally end?

A marriage formally comes to an end when the Family Court issues a dissolution (divorce) order.(See “Divorce: Getting a “dissolution” order” in this chapter.)

No formal legal steps are necessary for a couple to separate – they simply stop living together (see “Separating” in this chapter). However, one of them may want to apply to the Family Court for a separation order; this can be a useful record of when the couple separated if one or both of them later applies for a dissolution order.

A married couple can also change the form of their relationship to a civil union without first having to dissolve their marriage. They start the process by completing a “Notice of Intended Civil Union change of relationship from marriage” (available from ).

Forced marriages

Laws that protect against forced marriages

Crimes Act 1961, ss128B, 134; Marriage Act 1955, ss 17, 18; Family Proceedings Act 1980, s 31(1)(a)(ii)

A number of laws in New Zealand address, directly or indirectly, the problem of forced marriages of girls and young women.

Of course, forcing someone to have sex is a crime. It’s also a crime to have sex with someone under the age of 16, whether they in fact consent or not. In line with that age of consent law for having sex, people under 16 can’t get married.

Also, apart from the question of your age, if you were forced into getting married and didn’t genuinely agree to it, the marriage is legally “void” – this means that legally it doesn’t exist and you’re still single. To make things clear, you can also go to the Family Court to get a court order declaring that the marriage doesn’t legally exist.

The law dealing with when 16 and 17 year olds can get married was changed in August 2018, in response to concerns about forced marriages in New Zealand. Before then, a 16 or 17 year old could get married if their parents agreed, but the law change took this power away from the parents and gave it to the Family Court.

Note: On average there have been about 80 marriages a year involving 16 or 17-year-olds. Around 80% of those 16 or 17-year-olds have been female.

16 and 17-year-olds need a judge’s permission to get married

Marriage Act 1955, ss 18–20

If one or both of you are 16 or 17 and you want to get married, you’ll need to apply formally to the Family Court to get permission from a judge. To make sure you’re not being forced into the marriage, the judge will only give permission if they’re satisfied that:

  • you’re applying for permission voluntarily, without being forced or pressured to do it, and
  • you understand what you’re asking the judge to do, and you genuinely want the judge to give permission, and
  • the marriage will be in your best interests.

In deciding whether the marriage is in your best interests, the judge has to take into account how old and how mature you are; what you think about the marriage and what’s in your own best interests; what your parents think; and any other relevant information that’s available to the judge.

The judge can appoint a lawyer to represent you. The government will pay the lawyer’s fees.

If the judge thinks it will be essential for deciding the case, they can also get a qualified person to provide a cultural report to explain aspects of your cultural and religious background. However, the judge has to take into account whether you think getting the report is a good idea.

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