Most genealogy software gives you one field for the date of marriage, and one field for the place of marriage.

However, there are some complex unions that do not take place on just one day and one place. In genealogical data, I've seen up to 4 components of a marriage:

  1. The Legal Marriage: When the couple signs the wedding document with witnesses.

  2. The Wedding Ceremony: When the couple are non-legally declared to be married.

  3. The Religious Marriage: When the couple signs the offical document declaring them married according to their religion in front of witnesses.

  4. The Religious Ceremony: When the couple are declared to be married according to their religion.

These four events usually occur on the same date and in the same place. But that need not be the case, and each can occur on different dates in different cities.

How should this be recorded in genealogy software, and what (if any) of these events should take precedence as the "Marriage" event if the software only allows one event?

3 Answers 3


My software (Brothers Keeper) allows ten different marriage events, although I seldom use them. And you can put in multiples of the same event, if someone got 2 marriage licenses, for instance.



Married (civil),

Married (religious),

Marriage Bann,

Marriage Bond,

Marriage Contract,

Marriage License,

Marriage Settlement,

Marriage Intention

  • 1
    How do these export to GEDCOM?
    – Those Legs
    Nov 17, 2012 at 22:52
  • Like this: 0 @F1286@ FAM 1 HUSB @I4147@ 1 WIFE @I4148@ 1 CHIL @I4149@ 1 CHIL @I4150@ 1 CHIL @I447@ 1 CHIL @I4151@ 1 ENGA 2 DATE 1 APR 1868 1 MARR 2 DATE 2 APR 1868 1 MARR 2 TYPE CIVIL 2 DATE 2 APR 1868 1 MARR 2 TYPE RELIGIOUS 2 DATE 2 APR 1868 1 MARB 2 DATE 2 APR 1868 1 _MBON 2 DATE 2 APR 1868 1 MARC 2 DATE 2 APR 1868 1 MARL 2 DATE 2 APR 1868 1 MARS 2 DATE 2 APR 1868 1 _MARI 2 DATE 2 APR 1868 Nov 17, 2012 at 23:18
  • 1
    This may be best, except that the TYPE tag is freeform and not defined within GEDCOM and not standardized between programs. I suppose <sigh> someone will have to pull together the TYPE's in use in all the genealogy software out there and find the common ground (if there is any). Any takers for this project?
    – lkessler
    Nov 18, 2012 at 0:37
  • 1
    Is that the sort of thing FHISO will be doing?
    – Ash
    Nov 18, 2012 at 5:53
  • 1
    @Ash. This may not be the right forum for this question. I suggest asking FHISO on their web site or if you think appropriate, ask as a new question here. Nov 18, 2012 at 11:44

This should affect me personally since my wife and I had a civil ceremony in one country, a religious ceremony in a different country (a week later), and we were living in yet a third country at the time.

It's one of the reasons why I haven't used any commercial or off-the-shelf software products. The narrow concept of a church wedding is very limiting, and doesn't transport well to other cultures.

As well as the separations you highlighted, there are legal polygamous marriages (not the same as "bigamous" which is a class of illegal marriage), same-sex marriages, common-law marriages, and even just "intimate liaisons". I did write a little on these for my own research at Worldwide FH Data (section 11 on Marriage).

Ideally, I believe each distinct ceremony or registration should constitute a different event. They might all have an event-category, or event-class, of "Union" but they would be independent events with distinct event-types.

To ask a question such as 'when were they actually married?' makes some important cultural and life-style assumptions. It might be answerable with a single date in many cases but not all. It's a little like asking 'what is a family unit?' (a question I did think of posing here) since there is no one-size-fits-all answer.


Traditional genealogy, from which much of our terminology and many of our tools derive, served a particular view of society in which some classes of relationship and the accompanying ceremonies were recognised and others were deprecated.

Today, we identify a wide range of ways in which a new person can enter a family and be assigned a name but family historians try to describe all of these as some variant of "birth and christening". We have discussed the inherent difficulties in How do I record names involving adoptions in a family tree? and How to handle indirect family?, among other questions.

This question reflects exactly the same issues around another major life event -- the creation of a new family unit. @ACProctor refers to the need for multiple instances of a Union event category of which the most common (for the time being) is marriage (and its complement, divorce).

The apparently simple question(s) How should ... be recorded? actually has two distinct threads embedded within it.

  1. How can I make software written for a different world view work for me today?
  2. What should be the architecture specifications for the next generation of software?

Unfortunately, there is a significant risk that either of these questions would be closed on the grounds that they will generate lists of conflicting opinions and/or inconclusive discussion.

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