Divorce at second sight: How easy is it to end a (first sight) marriage in NZ?

Even though they're married, if these MAFS contestants decide to end things they won't need to split their assets evenly.
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Even though they're married, if these MAFS contestants decide to end things they won't need to split their assets evenly.

Who would have guessed it? It appears that marrying someone at first sight is really risky.

 Just a few days after their Married At First Sight weddings, it looks like at least two couples are ready to call it quits. So, how hard is it to end a marriage?

And, given these couples didn't meet until they were facing the cameras at an altar, are these marriages legit?

Married at First Sight New Zealand Luke and Lacey.
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Married at First Sight New Zealand Luke and Lacey.

We put these questions to the show's makers and Sharon Chandra, a senior associate at law firm Turner Hopkins who specialises in family law and estates.

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FIRST OFF, CAN YOU GET MARRIED TO SOMEONE YOU DON'T KNOW?

As long as you meet them once before saying "I do" it's all good, according to Chandra.

Paperwork must be filled out prior to the wedding itself, but the couple don't actually need to know each other, she says. "My understanding is it would be possible, the signatures need to be witnessed ... but both the signatures don't need to be witnessed at the same time."

A spokeswoman for MediaWorks, the company that owns Three, confirmed all the weddings in the New Zealand version of the show were "legal weddings". Offshore, many of the Married At First Sight contestants didn't marry for real as the laws made it too difficult. 

Marriage licences in New Zealand only need to be organised three days before the ceremony, which meant the show was able to keep the wedding participants mostly under wraps until the day.

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COOL, SO NOW THAT THEY'VE MARRIED SOMEONE THEY JUST MET THESE COUPLES WANT TO BREAK UP. HOW SOON CAN THEY END THIS THING?

The law requires married couples to have been living apart for two years before they can apply for a divorce.

That means these couples are probably going to have to remain technically married for at least two years before they can finally end it. There is one other way out, Chandra says, but it's not so simple.

The Family Court can deem a marriage void, she says, if they argue it was never legitimate in the first place. That's not an easy argument to win, Chandra explains, because the main grounds for which a marriage is illegitimate are either you're related to your partner or unwillingly entered the marriage.

"Unless you could fit it under duress or undue pressure, I don't see [the court ruling the marriage void]," she says.

Divorcing was, according to the MediaWorks spokeswoman, completely up to the contestants.

"Should any of the couples decide to split they are responsible for organising their own divorce and any costs associated with this," she said.

WHAT ABOUT 'ANNULMENTS'?

They're not really a thing in New Zealand, sorry.

An annulment is when a marriage is wiped from existence. It's a legal procedure to declare that a marriage never happened, but there's no similar procedure in New Zealand, Chandra says.

"I think the only equivalent to an annulment is a declaration the marriage is void, apart from that the only ground you can have is to get a divorce and show the marriage has broken down."

And to have a marriage declared void, you need to prove it should have never gone ahead in the first place. For that, you need a strong legal argument, Chandra says. Saying it was all a mistake – even with the evidence that you didn't even know who you were marrying – probably won't cut it. It looks like you'll have to stay legally married for at least two years.

THAT MEANS THEY'LL HAVE TO SPLIT THEIR ASSETS? WON'T THEY?

Nope! Even though the couples are legally married, they don't need a prenuptial agreement to keep what is theirs, Chandra says. 

"Only after you've been living together for three years or more, even if you're married or not, if you haven't been living together for three years or longer than that equal sharing regime doesn't kick in," she explains.

She says the actual rule requiring couples to equally split their assets if they separate doesn't relate to marriage at all.

Despite there being no legal reason for the participants in Married At First Sight to split their assets should they break up, the MediaWorks spokeswoman said prenups were offered to each couple on the show.

For those unmarried long-term couples, Chandra does have a warning: If you split after three years, without any prenup, then legally you should be splitting your assets. Even with a prenuptial agreement, she says there can be complications. If your circumstances change "significantly" – say if you buy a house or change careers – Chandra says those agreements become worthless.

"Regularly review them then you won't be able to argue a change in circumstances," Chandra advises. Although those conversations can be, well, tricky.

 - Stuff

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