Wedding Bells: Can They Ring During COVID-19?

 In Family Law

Wedding season is upon us, but it’s looking quite different this year.

Weddings take a lot of advanced planning and coordinating with venues, vendors, and guests. With COVID-19, couples now either have to make the difficult decision of postponing their plans, or concocting a creative alternative plan.

Yes, there are Alternatives…

Alternatives, the news has shown us, include people getting married outdoors while practicing social distancing. Others use video-conferencing means like Zoom, WhatsApp, or FaceTime, allowing people to either watch remotely as the couple and officiant stand 6-feet apart, or the officiant to conduct the ceremony through the webcam. While these are inventive, one has to ask, are these creative differences in the wedding legal, or having other consequences?

Yes, there are Risks to these Alternatives…

Couples can go ahead with these alternative wedding ceremonies, but it’s important to know what this type of decision means, legally, for you and your partner.

What Makes a Valid Marriage in Ontario

The Marriage Act outlines what needs to happen for that marriage to be valid:

  • The parties getting married need a licence;
  • There needs to be an officiant present;
  • There need to be at least two witnesses to the marriage;
  • The marriage has to be in the presence of the officiant and witnesses; and
  • Signatures need to be affixed to the marriage licence.

With Ontario’s COVID-19 regulations and directives, hiccups are quite clear:

  • Gatherings of more than five people are currently not allowed. Five people, minimum, are needed for a wedding.
  • Social distancing measures need to be followed. An officiant and at least two witnesses need to be present and their signatures, along with the couple’s, need to be affixed to the licence.
  • Government agencies are closed and marriage licences are not being issued. This legal document is required before, during, and after the marriage for filing purposes, to ensure that requirements set out in the Marriage Act are met, such as ensuring the parties are not minors, not related, and are not already married as well as being signed by all parties. The licence is then filed with the relevant government bodies.

While exceptions and modifications have been made in other areas of law where witnessing needs to take place in the presence of others, the Marriage Act terms still continue to be in effect and no revisions have been made to it at this time.

What Does This Mean?

While these marriages have not yet been tested in court, the marriage may not be valid and could be void or voidable. The wedding may be seen as a celebration ceremony, rather than a legal marriage. The potential implications span across several areas, including tax, health benefits, and family law rights. For family law in particular, a different set of property division rights apply to a married couple than to a common law couple. Ownership of a home and rights to a home are larger for married couples. Spousal support claims could also take on a different character.

Caution should be exercised. Until the courts tell us otherwise, couples who do have a wedding ceremony during this time should keep in mind that they still require a marriage licence and are not legally married without it. They should also be aware of the trickle-down effect into other aspects of their lives that can be impacted.

This blog post was written by Olivia Koneval, a member of the Family Law team.  She can be reached at 613-369-0367 or at olivia.koneval@mannlawyers.com.

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