THE LEGAL SIDE OF MARRIAGE IN NIGERIA


Q: What are the types of marriage in Nigeria?

A: There are three types of marriage in Nigeria. The first and oldest of them is the customary marriage that was prevalent among our ancestors before the advent of the colonial masters and missionaries. It is the voluntary union for life of one man with one or several wives. The distinguishing characteristic of the customary marriage is the ability of the man to take as many wives as he pleases. However, Islamic Law Marriage which is regarded as a variant of customary marriage limits the maximum number of women married to a man at any period to four.

The second form of marriage is the church wedding ceremony which is sometimes also known as the church blessing. With the advent of Christianity in Africa, converts or members of the church are encouraged to wed in the church by the rites of their respective Christian denomination. Church marriage by the Scriptures or Holy Bible is monogamous which is the union of one man to one woman for life. While such church marriages are sociologically acceptable and praiseworthy, they convey no legal rights except where contracted in a licensed place of worship.

The third form of marriage is known as the registry marriage, often referred to as court marriage. The registry marriage is conducted in various local government marriage registries. This form of marriage also prohibits marriage to more than one person. The rights of the wife are protected under this type of marriage because it accords the woman the right to her husband’s property in the event of his death.

Q: I love my church so much. I can’t even think of getting married elsewhere, but I’ve just discovered that my beloved church is not a licenced place of worship. What do I have to do to have a marriage ceremony that will be spiritually fulfilling as well as legally binding?

A: Simply take your intended spouse to the marriage registry within your jurisdiction and contract a marriage under the Marriage Act. Having plugged the legal lacuna that may have resulted from marrying only in your church, go ahead and fulfil yourself spiritually by declaring your marital vows before God’s elect. You may call it a wedding or a marriage blessing – what is important is that there are enforceable obligations because of your marriage ceremony in the registrar’s office.

Q: My fiancé contracted a customary law marriage with an unbeliever when he was not yet a born again Christian. He has not formally divorced his wife, but he informed me that she is right now living with another man. He has assured me that the moment we marry in church or the registry, his previous marriage will come to nought since it is inferior to the one we are about to contract. Is he correct?

A: No, statutory marriage is monogamous in nature. It is a union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others. Thus, a party to a subsisting statutory or customary law marriage like your fiancé has no capacity to enter a statutory marriage with you or any other person other the spouse previously married under the Marriage Act or customary law. If you go ahead and marry him, without his dissolving his previous marriage, your marriage is void or meaningless. It is even an offence (bigamy) punishable by imprisonment if your fiancé is discovered. However, note that a state like Lagos State has expunged bigamy from its Criminal Code and it remains only a civil offence within that jurisdiction. Before your fiance can successfully marry you, he must first dissolve his previous marriage under the customary law under which he contracted it. As a child of God, I will draw your attention to Jesus’ comment on divorce in Matthew 19:3-9. Investigate his stories further and seek the Lord’s face before you eagerly await the dissolution of his previous marriage. Good luck!

Q: Before I met the Lord, I married several women under customary law. Now my Pastor advises me that only my first wife is my real wife. He says I should put away the other three women I married after my first wife and undertake a church marriage ceremony with my first wife before he can appoint me a deacon in the church. Is this legally possible?

A: Yes, it is possible. You can contract a valid statutory marriage with your first wife so long as you first obtain the dissolution of your other marriages. I am inclined to agree with your Pastor on the status of your first wife, but you should also realise that you shouldn’t simply shrug off the responsibilities you voluntarily undertook. Every effort must be made on your part to provide for these other women especially when innocent children (who did not determine their birth to their parents) are involved.

Q: I met a young man in my fellowship whom I’m convinced is my God sent husband. However, my parents are making things difficult for us by refusing to accept him. As a twenty-six years old girl, do I need my parent’s consent for any form of marriage?

In statutory marriage, the consent of parents is only necessary when either party is a minor. The Marriage Act stipulates twenty-one years as the age of maturity, but I wonder how tenable this age benchmark is, against the constitutional provision of adulthood of eighteen years. The Child Rights Act 2003 stipulates eighteen years as the minimum age for marriage. However, in customary marriages, parental consent is always necessary, particularly for the bride, whatever her age. Parental consent precedes the acceptance of the dowry, which is a fundamental element in customary law marriage. Even for a man, it would appear an anomaly to approach your prospective in-laws without being accompanied by your immediate family. Often, when parents withhold their consent, it implies withholding of their blessings. Pursue dialogue with your parents and most importantly; ask God to intervene in your case. Although parents can be biased along ethnic, geopolitical and religious fault lines, they often see what young persons in love may not see within their sight range.

Q: How can I prove to the world that I am married?

A: It all depends on what you mean. Society and even the law make rebuttable presumptions with regards to marriage. However, situations may arise that require proof of the existence of a validly contracted marriage. In customary marriage, evidence that the parties fulfilled the marriage rites acceptable to the relevant community is sufficient. Couples may take further steps of affirming their customary marriages by deposing to an affidavit of marriage for records. For the statutory marriage, the entry in a marriage register book and a certificate of marriage issued by the Registrar of Marriage is sufficient proof of marriage. The wife usually keeps the marriage certificate which serves as evidence of the marriage that has taken place. The church wedding ceremony is proved by a certificate of marriage issued by or under the authority of a licenced place of worship, which will often have an appendage that is detached and filed at the marriage registry of the applicable local government area.

Q: I am a career woman who has achieved a lot with my maiden name which I hope to retain even after my wedding ceremony, but my fiancé is insisting that it would be illegal for me keep my maiden name after our wedding. Is he correct?

A: No, you can still retain your maiden name even after marriage, for business and official purposes. This is a trend with women in show business and the entertainment industry who have made a name within their industry before meeting their spouses. Building a new identity on a new marital name may seem a Herculean task, and such women, for the sake of branding, may decide to retain their popular maiden names. However, you should understand that the average African man has a stereotyped role expectation of a wife which may not condone a separate identity for his wife. Your fiancé naturally would not only want help- meet and confidant but a woman who bears his identity from afar.

Q: Are there any special benefits accruing to a marital name for a woman?

A: Yes, covertly, the society accords you more recognition and respect because marriage is an honourable institution. Overtly, as a civil servant and in some private sectors, you are entitled to about sixteen weeks of maternity leave. This does not imply that an unmarried pregnant woman does not have the right to the privileges of impending motherhood. The Labour Act attempts to protect all female employees, but the conditions of service or terms of the contract of employment of a particular organisation will determine the scope of privileges of a pregnant woman.

Q: I was upset when my fiancé told me that during the marriage ceremony in his church couples exchange a white Bible instead of rings. I have always dreamt of wearing a wedding ring because I feel it’s a legal way to flaunt my status. Please are rings not legal requirements of a marriage ceremony?

A: There is nothing legalistic about rings. It is not a requirement of law, but it is a symbol of unending love and the bond that exists between married couples. After the church ceremony, you can persuade your husband to buy rings for both of you to wear.

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