It’s time to abolish the legal concept of marriage

Last weekend, same-sex marriage was legalised in England and Wales, and was seen as a victory for equality. Indeed, while we still have the legal concept of marriage, I think it is fairer to allow it to more people, but I think a better and fairer solution would be to abolish it altogether.

Firstly, allowing same-sex marriages doesn’t solve the equality problem anyway. Why should only couples be able to get married? Why not groups of three or more people? Why should people only be allowed to enter into one marriage at a time? Why can’t people marry close relatives? I can’t think of a logical answer to any of these.

But the real question is: why is it that in the 21st century, we still have legal recognition of people’s personal relationships? Considered like that, I think it becomes a more clearly absurd idea. And by removing its legal status, this would actually open marriage up more. Any organisation, religious or otherwise, could have their own rules of marriage and recognise whatever sort of marriage they want, without worrying about whether it conforms to the state’s definition. Marriages could have official recognition within churches, for example, but just not any official recognition by the state. Marriages would still exist, but they would now be whatever people want them to be.

Admittedly, it’s not quite that simple. There are certain legal ramifications that come with marriage. People often talk about “rights”, but it’s about changes to your legal situation generally rather than rights per se. There are reasons for getting married, but that’s not the same as saying that there are reasons for legal marriage to exist. For example, some people get married for the security, or for the sake of children should they ever split up. But the fact is that many couples, with or without children, do not get married anyway, so the law needs to be robust enough to deal with any separations, or anything else, effectively and fairly. If it isn’t currently, it needs to be made so.

If one member of a married couple dies, then the surviving member does not have to pay any inheritance tax on their property, so is not at risk of having to sell their house. This is certainly a reason for getting married. But it is not a reason for having marriage as a legal construct. There is no reason in logic or fairness why only married couples should be exempt from this and not other people cohabiting, such as other family members or even friends. For example, elderly sisters Joyce and Sybil Burden have been discriminated against on these grounds and pursued their case for years before ultimately losing.

There is a certain simplicity to marriage in that a whole host of legal things are all put in place when you get married, such as inheritance. But there are other things that you might not be so happy about, such as what happens to your wealth if you split up, or just generally the fact that you have to go through a legal process at all if you split up, even if there is no specific disagreement about what should happen to any possessions or indeed any disagreement about anything at all. This would all be better dealt with by couples making specific agreements on specific issues. There could be more readily available “off-the-shelf” contracts that cover most of what people would normally want. But these would be available for any people, not just those who currently fit the legal requirements for marriage. These contracts would be preferable to marriage because each one would be specifically about one issue and people would know and choose exactly what they were signing, if they wanted to sign anything at all, rather than having a single catch-all legal device that doesn’t specify anything in particular when you enter into it.

We’re also now left with civil partnerships – an extra layer of bureaucracy that is a legacy of a government not wanting to commit to same-sex marriage. This has created further problems because civil partnerships are only available to same-sex couples making them also the subject of equality campaigns. For all the same reasons, I would argue that these, like legal marriage, should be abolished.

To make my point clear, I am not making an argument to people thinking of getting legally married that they shouldn’t do so. While there are benefits, people will continue to get married. I am arguing that we should not have an unfair legal system that benefits couples who choose to have their personal relationship arbitrarily validated by the government. The state does not need to recognise who we form personal relationships with. It’s none of its business.

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