“Are you married?” For most people this feels like an obvious question.
But despite common acceptance of the definition of marriage, marital status can be highly complex.
English marriage law comes from a mix of statutes from the last two centuries, which throw up bizarre lacunae: a marriage in a synagogue is automatically legally valid, whereas one in a mosque is not; a valid wedding ceremony can take place in a bandstand, but not in a marquee.
Where a marriage takes place abroad, things can be even more confusing. The English courts have had to consider recognising such things as proxy weddings in African states and unregistered Syrian nuptials, often trying to work out the parties’ original intentions years down the line.
This may sound trivial, but when it comes to divorce, the difference between having a valid marriage and relying on a non-binding ceremony is the difference between having all the rights of a spouse and none of them.
It’s a difference which can sometimes be measured in tens of millions of pounds, as well as impacting immigration and inheritance rights.
In the UK, divorce is a one billion pound industry. So getting the way we record marriages and divorces right is a business issue as much as a personal imperative for the parties involved.
The fate of the non-married “spouse” is a precarious one, leaving them open to financial, emotional and even physical abuse. Often, they only find that their marriage is invalid when they try to seek legal support, only to find it is unavailable.
Modern technology may, however, offer an answer for this most ancient of institutions. Blockchain, the highly secure, unchangeable ledger system which underpins cryptocurrencies, could provide a system of decentralised marriage records.
The development of a transparent marriage registry built on blockchain would create a permanent record of a couple’s intentions which transcends international boundaries – a crucial factor in our inter-connected world, where borders and nationalities are no longer the barriers they once were.
This would protect those who would otherwise find their union in legal limbo. But it could also offer something greater beyond that, which goes to the heart of the libertarian values behind the entire crypto movement.
By utilising blockchain, marriage could be taken out of the purview of the state. Decentralising marriage could provide an immense liberating force – allowing international standards of marriage to proliferate. Just as bitcoin allows a currency to function without the state, so too could “bitmarriage” end the link between where you live and the legal union you may or may not enter into.
At the start of this month, we heard that the government would consider civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples, and look into other reforms, like listing the mothers’ names on marriage certificates as well as those of the couple’s fathers. But using technology to take marriage out of the ambit of the state entirely could go much further towards modernising and liberating the institution, which it clearly needs.
People could elect to join themselves in a bespoke legal regime, underpinned by arbitration at an international level, with disputes and divorces resolved through automation for simple cases and litigation for more complex ones.
Bitmarriage, would, in essence function like a normal union – a standard of relationship, upheld and supported by community and legal rights. Yet, by decentralising the power, it would become a liberating force, allowing same-sex marriages across the globe and paving the way for new arrangements, such as polyamorous couples to find legal recognition.
It could also provide a simplified system for prenuptial and cohabitation agreements, as well as allowing for proper registration of marriages in places that lack administrative infrastructure.
We are already starting to see how blockchain can transform business, but we cannot neglect the power it has to transform society too. The use of decentralised ledgers has enormous potential to change how and why we record aspects of our lives – and like all great capitalist developments, it has the capacity to promote freedom across the globe too.
By advancing the ability to register and personalise marriage, the institution can seamlessly adapt to modern social conditions and reflect our increasingly globalised world, providing legal protection for the vulnerable and recognition for the marginalised.