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It’s Wedding Time! How to Legally Prepare

Are you planning to get married soon?  It’s a life-changing event, and there are many details to attend to.  You and your future spouse may be caught up in all the excitement and romance of it all.

But in the giddy time leading up to The Big Day, it’s important not to overlook the legal formalities.  

First Things First:  Understanding the Two Types of Marriage

To be legally married in Ontario, you must have it performed by an authorized official.

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For a civil marriage, you can have it performed by a judge, Justice of the Peace, or authorized municipal clerk.  It is commonly performed at a local municipal office, or at City Hall.  You will first need to obtain a marriage license that is signed by both you and your future spouse.

The second type of marriage is through a religious ceremony, performed by a religious marriage officiant.  However, since your religious ceremony is not automatically equivalent to a legal marriage, you will likely still need a marriage license to make it a valid marriage under provincial law.

The difference between these two types of marriage is important.  In fact, for one former couple it meant a trip to the Ontario Court of Appeal for a ruling.[1]  In a case called Debora v. Debora, the husband and wife had participated in a religious ceremony only; they deliberately did not apply for a marriage license at the time because the husband wanted to avoid being cut off from the widower’s pension he was receiving.   According to the wife, he misled her in thinking that the religious marriage was sufficient to make them legally married. Seven years later, they went through a civil marriage ceremony, but ultimately separated. They disagreed over their official marriage date; the choice between early and later dates made a big difference to the wife’s property-equalization rights under the provincial Family Law.

The Appeal Court was direct:  Under the provincial Marriage Act, no marriage can be solemnized without a marriage license.  The couple’s earlier religious marriage was not recognized in law; this left the wife with less-beneficial equalization rights, calculated using the later official date.

Next:  Getting a Marriage License

To get legally married in Ontario, you will need a marriage license as prescribed by the governing legislation.[2]   The application form can be obtained from the ServiceOntario website,[3] and is valid only in the province.

There are no residency pre-requisites involved; you and your future spouse can be living in the province permanently or temporarily at the time you apply.  There are also no restrictions as to citizenship, or in connection with gender (since Ontario permits same-sex marriages).

However, there are some age requirements:  In Ontario you and your soon-to-be spouse must be of legal age, which is 18.  You can still get married if you are 16 or 17 years old and have the consent of both of your parents.

Providing Documentation

To get a marriage license, you and your future spouse must bring the following to a ServiceOntario location: 

  1. Two pieces of government-issued identification each, one of which must include your photo.  This can be your birth certificates, valid passports or driver’s license, Canadian Citizenship Card or valid Ontario Photo Card, or Record of Immigrant Landing.
  2. The required fee (which differs according to the municipality where you want to get married).

In normal circumstances, a marriage license can take about 4 weeks to arrive; however in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the wait-time may be extended.  Once issued, your marriage license is good for the next 90 days. 

If either you or your spouse has been previously married to someone else, then you will have to provide proof of divorce in the form of your court-certified copy of the final Divorce Decree, Final Judgment, or Certificate of Divorce.   If your prior divorce took place outside of Canada, you must get an authorization from the Office of the Registrar General before your marriage license can be issued.

Getting Married During the COVID-19 Pandemic

There have been some temporary procedural adjustments made to accommodate the restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic.  In some regions of the Greater Toronto Area, for example, marriage licenses are issued by appointment only, and the application must be submitted online at least three days before the appointment date.[4]

Also, the requirements for what constitutes a legal marriage ceremony have been temporarily adjusted; only the following people need to be in attendance:

  • You and your future spouse;
  • The marriage officiant; and
  • Two (2) witnesses.

These changes are designed to accommodate present government orders limiting the number of people who are allowed to attend gatherings in-person during the pandemic.

After the Ceremony:  Registration and Your Marriage Certificate

After the ceremony, you must register your marriage. The official who performed the marriage ceremony does this by sending your signing marriage license to ServiceOntario.

You will also want to get a marriage certificate, which is a document that represents the legal record of your marriage after-the-fact.  You can apply for it online,[5] only after your marriage has been formally registered.

The marriage certificate lists the name of you and your new spouse, as well as the date and place of your marriage.  It serves as official proof that you are married, and may be necessary for certain legal transactions such as applying for social benefits, or requesting a change of your last name.  

Despite the COVID-19 outbreak, ServiceOntario continues to register marriages and issue marriage certificates, although there may be some delays. 

One Final Point:  Consider a Separation Agreement

No one who is about to enter into a marriage wants to think about what might happen if that same marriage comes to an end. But – as unromantic as it may seem – there is great wisdom to negotiating a separation agreement long before your wedding date. 

A well-drafted separation agreement embodies the mutually-agreed terms and conditions reached between you and your future spouse, and aims to resolve any issues that could arise if you separate and decide to end your relationship. They are a wise step towards planning for the (hopefully remote) possibility that your relationship may end in the future.

[1] Debora v. Debora, 1999 CanLII 1840 (ON CA), http://canlii.ca/t/1f96w

[2] Marriage Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. M.3.

[3] https://www.ontario.ca/page/getting-married#section-3

[4] See https://www.toronto.ca/services-payments/venues-facilities-bookings/getting-married/step-1-applying-for-a-marriage-licence/

[5] https://www.ontario.ca/page/how-get-copy-ontario-marriage-certificate-online

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