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Saying “I do” in Belgium
Marrying in Belgium can be a fairly straightforward affair – and probably one of the nicer reasons to spend time at your local city hall. For the most part, it’s about getting the paperwork in order and showing up in front of the magistrate on the right day.
But for international couples, the marriage process might present a few extra hurdles – be it arranging visas, understanding inheritance rights or simply the knowing what to expect of ceremony itself.
Whether one of you has followed (or wants to follow) you partner to her home country or Belgium is a foreign land to you both, it’s important that you understand the rights, obligations and benefits that marriage offers. So before you pop the question, read below to find out what you’re getting into.
Making it legal
Any couple, whether opposite-sex or same-sex, is eligible to marry in Belgium if one of the two partners is a Belgian citizen or has been a resident of Belgium for more than three months.
To marry, you will need to show original and certified copies of both parties’ birth certificates, proofs of identity and nationality, proof of residence and a certification that one is not currently married. Belgium.be provides more detailed official information in French. Also, the website of the United States embassy in Brussels gives some useful advice.
All documentation should be submitted to your local commune, who will draw up the marriage contract.
The wedding itself
Unlike some countries, in Belgium the only marriages recognised by the law are those that have been officiated by a competent Belgian legal authority (the ambtenaar van de burgerlijke stand / officier de l’etat civil). Religious leaders, therefore, do not have the power to sign marriage contracts.
For this reason, many Belgians have two marriage ceremonies. The first is a smaller one for family and a few close friends at the city hall and consists of the legal signing of the marriage contract in front of the appropriate state representative and is usually followed by a celebratory drink or lunch.
The second is a larger, symbolic ceremony – religious or not – for a wider circle of friends and family. This larger celebration usually starts in the late morning or early afternoon and is divided into four parts: the ceremony (be it in a place of worship or other space), a reception, a formal dinner and an evening party.
Often different groups of people will be invited to the reception of drinks and hors d’oeuvres (think: the father of the groom’s work colleagues) and formal dinner (better friends and family), while close friends and family will be welcome to all parts of the celebration. Others (usually the younger friends of the couple) might only be invited to evening party, which typically lasts into the wee hours of the morning.
A second option: legal cohabitation
More and more, Belgians and people living in Belgium choose not to get married. Having children and building a family is no longer solely the domain of the legally wed. Today, a growing number of Belgian couples opt to sign a “legal cohabitation contract” instead of a marriage contract.
Legal cohabitation (which you can read more about in French) affords couples many of the same rights as married couples: they can joint file their taxes, co-own property and foreigner partners can apply for residency on the grounds of family reunification.
There are some key differences, however. Inheritance is not automatic in legal cohabitation, so arrangements must be made separately through wills. Citizenship acquirement rights are not the same as with married couples. On the other hand, there is no divorce: the contracts can be unilaterally dissolved by one partner and don’t require a trip to court unless there are property or guardianship disputes.
Citizenship and residency
Marrying a Belgian does not automatically grant Belgian citizenship. However, it does speed up the process a bit. In some cases, being married to a Belgian lets you apply for citizenship after only six months of legal residence in Belgium – far shorter than the five to 10 years it takes those filing for citizenship on the basis of long-term residence.
Also, while for others it can take more than two years to receive a decision on your application, citizenship requests based on marriage typically are decided upon within six weeks.
Photo: Flamenc/Wikimedia Commons