How to ‘do the legal bit’ before your celebrant-led wedding

The biggest deal-breaker for many couples who are considering a celebrant-led wedding is having to do ‘the legal bit’ separately.

There is a notion in the UK that a ‘proper’ wedding is one where the couple sign the official marriage register. A wedding ceremony where this doesn’t happen, some people argue, is a ‘fake wedding’.

It won’t surprise you I’m sure, to discover that I think this viewpoint is… misinformed (to be a lot more polite about it than I often feel when I’m told this is what I do). And here’s why.

In short, just as you wouldn’t declare a funeral ‘fake’ if the next of kin didn’t sign the death certificate right there in the ceremony, and just as you celebrate your birthday on the day you came into the world, not on the date your parents registered your birth, the celebratory and ceremonial aspect of a wedding has little to do with the signing of the legal papers.

I say ‘little’, but of course, it can feel like a huge thing that you have committed in this way. Especially if you are in a same-sex relationship and your union has only relatively recently been legally recognised. I don’t want to minimise the huge step that couples take in legally binding themselves to one another. But it really doesn’t have to be at the heart of the wedding.

Did you know that pretty much all the things that people most associate with a traditional wedding, including the ‘I dos’, the vows and the exchange of rings, are purely ceremonial? That the wedding ceremony, complete with these traditional elements, is the celebration of the legal marriage, which is repeating just a few contracting words and signing the papers?

In most countries in the rest of Europe, it is (and always has been) totally the norm for a couple to go and do their legal wedding paperwork a few days before their wedding ceremony, whether that’s in a church or celebrant-led.

It is only in the UK that the idea of doing the legal part is seen as being part of any ‘proper’ wedding. But the times, they are a-changing, as Bob Dylan sang (now I’ve got that going round my head…)

There are many, many reasons why you might want to choose to have a celebrant-led wedding. You can read a lot of them here.

I’m going to assume that you’re here, reading this post because you’ve chosen to do just that (hooray!)

So the next thing to do is to look at your options around how to get the legal bits done so that you can get on with having your awesome, personalised wedding wherever and however you want it.

OK, so how do we book a 2+2 wedding in England and Wales?

The easiest and cheapest way for you to do the legal marriage part is in a statutory marriage registration, sometimes known as a ‘2+2’. 

The reason it’s called a 2+2 is that it will be you two, plus two witnesses. This will always take part at the main register office in your area and is a very short, very simple process. You will need to declare that you don’t know of any legal reason you shouldn’t be married to one another, that you take your partner to be your legally wedded husband or wife, and you sign the marriage register. It’s a strictly no-frills affair!

These sorts of simple registration ceremonies are often in short supply and are usually only offered on certain days of the week at a certain time. They normally cost around £60, but that might vary according to where you are in England or Wales.

What should we say to the registrar when we’re booking?

You will probably be asked why you want this sort of ceremony. Please avoid saying ‘we’re having our proper ceremony with a celebrant’ – it rather upsets some registrars, understandably (just as we celebrants get a bit riled the other way round!) That doesn’t mean that you should lie of course, but perhaps explain that you’re keeping the wedding celebrations personal and separate.

Some authorities offer what they call ‘personalised’ ceremonies, perhaps being able to do the legal part and then follow it later with a handfasting or sand ceremony for example. They may well tell you about these options when you’re first enquiring, in the hope you might decide to have your whole celebration with the registrar. Whilst these options are more personalised than a standard registrar-led ceremony, they will still have fixed wording, and you still won’t be able to choose the person who will be leading your ceremony, let alone get to know them. 

Our local authority only does 2+2s on a Tuesday morning, and we can’t do that…

If you can’t do the time that your register office has availability, or you want to have more witnesses with you (some couples like to take both sets of parents, for example), you could look at options within your local authority for hiring a room for a civil ceremony. This might be in your local town hall for example, or other council-run building where they permit weddings to happen. You could choose a small room and a basic ceremony but be aware that the price will jump up dramatically, often by a few hundred pounds.

Can a registrar come to our venue and do the legal bit as part of our ceremony with you?

Afraid not, no. The registrars are not allowed to combine their bit with any other sort of ceremony. In fact, they have to be actually off the premises entirely before any other ceremony can begin.

But what about having our registrar wedding at our venue, followed by our celebrant-led one?

This is certainly possible. However, there are three big things to bear in mind:

  1. This will be the most expensive option, as to have the registrar come to your venue will cost several hundred pounds on top of your celebrant’s fee.
  2. Having both ceremonies on the same day can cause issues with timing and potential extra stress. You’ll need to think about whether you’ll expect your guests to sit through two ceremonies (and how that might work) or find out whether your venue has another licensed room in which you can do the legal part with just your closest family whilst the rest of your guests assemble for your celebrant ceremony.
  3. If you were looking forward to that moment when you first see each other in all your finery as one of you walks down the aisle (or however you’ve decided to do it), you’ll need to kiss it goodbye, as you’ll be together for the legal bit first. That doesn’t stop you from making your entrance of course, but you won’t have that ‘big reveal’ moment that you’ve been after in the same way.

Hmmm OK. Looks like we’ll be doing it on a separate day then. But which will be our anniversary?

Really?! You’ve got two days to drink fizzy wine and celebrate! What’s not to love?!?!?

But if it really bothers you, pick one and stick to it.

Fair point! So we’re sold. What else do we need to know?

Yay! OK, so the best people to speak to for all the details for your area would be the people at your local register office, which you can find here.

You’ll need to give notice of your intent to marry at least 29 days before your legal wedding, and you must do it within 12 months of giving notice. 

It’s also worth noting that you don’t have to do the legal part before your celebrant-led wedding. You can totally do it afterwards (and you don’t even need to do it at all if you don’t want to have the legal stuff – but just tell your celebrant so they can alter the words they use accordingly).

Once that bit’s done you’re completely free to hold your celebration wherever you want, with no restrictions on content, timing or anything at all really! The only limit is your imagination (and, combined with the ideas of an experienced celebrant like me!) that’s pretty much sky-high!

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Bring it ON!! Let’s get chatting and take it from there.