Beware, your marriage may be null and void

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Had Sifiso Moyo (not real name) not approached the Office of the Registrar-General (RG) to apply for a surname change following her marriage and subsequent church wedding two years ago, she might never have found out her marriage had never been registered.

Consequently, her marriage was null and void at law.
I got the shock of my life, Moyo, now a mother of one, recalls. It was so embarrassing. I got married in church, signed all the papers and all along I was sure our pastor had registered the marriage because we paid all the money required.

They had paid the pastor $5 for the registration, $20 for fuel and $100 as a gift or reward for presiding over the marriage, which is all provided for in the Marriage Act Chapter 5:11.

Against this backdrop, Moyo and her husband felt short-changed because after fulfilling their side of the bargain, the pastor had been a big letdown.

We had to track down the maid of honour and the best man, who had since relocated from Harare so that we could have them as witnesses in registering the marriage, she says.

She adds it is embarrassing that now with a two-year-old child their marriage certificate reflected they were married on December 10 2011 although they had a marriage ceremony on August 26 2009.

The pastor who officiated at their marriage was not a marriage officer and had to use the authority (official stamp, certificate and signature) of another qualified pastor.

According to the Marriage Act, however, the marriage officer is legally bound to register the marriage immediately after the solemnisation of a marriage.

Moyos experience could be just a tip of the iceberg of many marriages that might not be registered, although couples think otherwise, particularly those whose marriages were not conducted in a court of law.

Such issues usually pop up when a partner in the marriage, particularly the husband, dies and the wife wants to take full charge of the estate.

Women in marriages registered under the Act have full protection of the law in cases where the late husbands relative might seek to take over his property.

In this context, it is important for married people to be certain on the status of their marriages because it takes more than possessing a copy of the marriage certificate for one to be considered legally married.

This makes court-solemnised marriages the safest.
A legal practitioner and pastor, Davison Kanokanga who is also a marriage officer said this would be the ideal situation.

Kanokanga said he noticed the difference with partners who got married at court and then later organised a ceremony where their pastor, who might not be a marriage officer, officiates. In this case, the pastor will not sign the marriage register, but will simply bless the couple.

Kanokanga said it was unacceptable for a pastor who is not a registered marriage officer to purport to be one.

It is unacceptable for a pastor to authorise someone to solemnise a marriage on his behalf because he is the one who is authorised to do that, he said.

The Marriage Act says purporting to be a marriage officer attracts a fine not exceeding level seven or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding two years or both such fine and such imprisonment.

Pastors usually charge between $100 and $200 to solemnise a marriage. A pastor who spoke on condition of anonymity said some abuse their authority to make money.

The pastor who is a marriage officer can send another pastor with his banns to conduct a wedding elsewhere. If he performs maybe three marriages a day, it means he would have pocketed $600, he said.

A church must have immovable property before its pastors can be authorised as marriage officers. However, churches that have qualified marriage officers have to affiliate themselves to other churches that have such properties.

Kanokanga said this was a policy of the Attorney-General, but it had hindered many pastors from qualifying as marriage officers. It could be effectively challenged.

It is this extra-judicial requirement which is making it difficult for many pastors to be registered as marriage officers.

It is my view that if a pastor who meets the requirements set out in Section 3 (3) of the regulations were to be refused registration as a marriage officer on the basis that their church does not own immovable property, such a pastor would have good chances of success if they were to bring an application for an order compelling the RG to register them subject of course to passing the exam, Kanokanga said.

The marriage would also have to be registered after a specific period of time after its solemnisation, failure of which it would be rendered null and void.

There are three types of marriages in Zimbabwe, namely civil marriage (Chapter 5:11), registered customary marriage and unregistered customary marriage.

Customary marriages are traditional unions. They are sometimes registered or can remain informal.

The legal status of a marriage determines the rights of a wife after divorce or the death of a spouse.