Registering civil marriages performed outside Israel with the Interior Ministry
How to registering civil marriages conducted abroad in Israel? Why are there no civil marriages in Israel and how can people of different faiths get married in the Holy Land? You are invited to read about these and other issues in the following article by Joshua Pex, partner in our firm and expert in Israeli immigration law and in representing couples before the Interior Ministry.
Is it possible to perform a civil wedding in Israel and register the marriage with the Interior Ministry?
Within the state of Israel it is only possible to marry in a religious ceremony conducted by a representative of one of the recognized religions. Accordingly, those not identified with a religion or mixed couples (two different religions) cannot get married within Israel’s borders. It is well known that there are also couples who cannot marry because of religious laws, such as: a cohen with a divorcée, mamzerim, etc. A civil marriage ceremony conducted in Israel, despite its symbolic meaning for the couple and their relatives, has no legal validity.
Supreme Court ruling Funk-Schlesinger v. the Ministry of the Interior: the court ruling that obligates the State to recognize marriages conducted abroad
In 1963 the Supreme Court, in an historic ruling, accepted the appeal of Anita Funk-Schlesinger, a Belgian citizen and Christian by religion, who was married in Cyprus to an Israeli citizen of the Jewish religion. Funk-Schlesinger applied to register as married in the Israeli Population Registry, but was refused by the Interior Ministry on the grounds that according to Israeli personal status laws, the two were not considered to be a married couple. The Supreme Court accepted the appeal and ruled that couples who are married outside of Israel, according to the laws of the country where they are married, shall be registered in the Population Registry and in their Israeli identity cards as “married” – even if they cannot be married in Israel according to the personal status laws. As long as the couple’s documents are valid and legally formulated, Interior Ministry officials have no say in the matter, and are obligated to register the couple as “married” in the Population Registry.
What documents must be presented in order to register a civil marriage with the Interior Ministry?
Israeli couples, or couples composed of one Israeli partner and one foreign citizen and who married abroad, or even one person eligible for aliya and one who is not, can register as married subject to presenting official, legally authenticated documents proving their marriage. The couple is required to go the Population Registry office closest to the residential address where they are registered, bringing their marriage license from abroad, and submit an application to change their personal status. Israelis residing abroad are authorized to submit the documents at the Israeli embassy or consulate closest to their place of residence. If one or both of the spouses wishes to change their surname following the marriage, they must submit an application to change their surname in addition to the application to change their personal status. In addition, see detailed information on the Population and Immigration Office website.
Since the marriage license has been granted outside of Israel, both spouses are required to appear at the Population and Immigration Office or the Israeli representation office abroad. Couples applying to register as married in the Population Registry office must have the following documents:
- ID cards of both partners;
- Israeli passports (if existing) of both partners (for those submitting an application at an Israeli consulate or embassy abroad, it is mandatory to present an Israeli passport);
- A properly formatted and recently taken passport picture on a light, plain background, 3.5cm*4.5cm in size;
- An original marriage license from the authority authorized to conduct marriages in the country where the marriage took place;
- Certification of prior personal status (for anyone who is not a resident registered in the Population Registry) – if the certificate was issued outside of Israel, it must be original, authenticated and translated into Hebrew with a notarial translation (certificates in Hebrew do not require translation);
- The marriage license must be approved and authenticated by one of the following means: apostille stamp – see explanation below; in countries which are not signatories to the Apostille Convention and do not grant such a stamp, the couple must come to the Israeli embassy to authenticate the marriage license. If the marriage license was not issued in Hebrew or Arabic, it must be translated in a notarial translation into Hebrew (see explanation below). If the marriage license was granted by a religious authority, the certificate must be approved by the authorized civil authority in that country.
It is very important to make sure that the couple has all the documents in their possession, correct and complete, and to that end it is preferable to obtain the services of a professional attorney who is experienced in the process.
What are a notary stamp and an apostille stamp?
A notary is an attorney who is authorized by the Justice Ministry to authenticate, approve and compose legal documents – actions that a regular attorney without notarial certification is not permitted to perform. In certain situations where we want to use public certificates from outside Israel – such as a certificate testifying to a civil marriage – in Israel, we must also obtain an apostille stamp; Israel is a signatory to the 1961 Hague Convention Abolishing the Requirement of Legalisation for Foreign Public Documents, according to which an apostille stamp is enough for a target country to recognize the validity of the documents accompanying a notarial approval in the country where they were issued. The Apostille Convention in fact enabled an international system of document authentication for those countries who have signed the convention. Accordingly, a marriage license from abroad which is presented to Israeli authorities must have an apostille stamp from abroad and a notarial translation in Israel.
In countries that are not signatories to the Apostille Convention, the couple must obtain consular approval – that is, they have to go to the Israeli embassy in the relevant country to authenticate the marriage license there. For more information on this topic, you are invited to read our article on the apostille stamp.
Is registration of the marriage in the Interior Ministry done automatically?
Until a few years ago, the Interior Ministry operated according to a protocol which stipulated a half-year waiting period before the personal status was changed and updated to “married” for Israelis who married foreign citizens abroad. During this waiting period, even if the couple submitted an authenticated and legally acceptable marriage certificate (according to the above rules), it would be recorded in the Population Registry that the Israeli spouse’s personal status was “under clarification”. In contrast, if two Israeli citizens submitted the documents, the registration was performed automatically. In 2019 the Supreme Court accepted an appeal which was submitted to nullify this protocol, when it ruled that Interior Ministry officials have no authority to change Israeli residents’ personal status to “under clarification”. Moreover, it was ruled that as long as the marriage license does not contain any (factually) inaccurate details that are clear and visible, justifying additional clarification, the Israeli resident’s personal status must be registered as “married” immediately, independent of whether or not the resident’s spouse is an Israeli citizen.
Where can one marry in a civil wedding outside of Israel?
There are various countries in the world that allow Israeli citizens to marry in civil weddings on their territory. Two countries that have become popular for that purpose are Cyprus and the Czech Republic. This is in part because neither country requires a certification of lack of opposition to the marriage on the part of the State of Israel – a certification that Israel, for religious and political reasons, avoids giving.
Is there a solution for the situation in which one partner cannot leave the country in order to get married?
For mixed couples (one Israeli and one a foreign citizen), sometimes the foreign citizen’s visa does not allow them to leave Israel in order to get married. Moreover, it may happen that the Israeli citizen is prevented from leaving the country due to legal status, health condition, or a stay of exit order banning them from leaving Israel. For such couples, there is a solution called “proxy marriage” or “marriage in absentia”, in which the marriage is conducted via someone granted power of attorney by one of the partners in the name of the partner who cannot be present physically. When the marriage is performed in the absence of one of the partners, it is called a “single proxy marriage”. Such marriages are legal in the state of Kansas in the U.S., as well as in Paraguay.
Moreover, the country of El Salvador in Central America allows remote weddings, without the presence of either spouse. In this case, the partners are represented by a local power of attorney who takes their places in signing the marriage contract. These marriages are called “double proxy marriages”, and are recognized as requiring registration in Israel by the Supreme Court in a famous ruling from 2011. Via cooperation between our office and attorneys’ offices in these countries, we assist many couples who want to get married there, in the absence of one or both spouses.
What difficulties may arise from proxy marriages – marriages in the absence of the spouses?
In principle, the State of Israel is obligated to register in the Marriage Registry those marriages that are conducted legally in a foreign country. The couple must make sure to present all the marriage documents (the marriage license and the protocol), legally authenticated and translated (see explanation above). Yet, it is important to call your attention to the fact that various legal difficulties may sometimes arise with marriages conducted in the absence of one (and certainly both) spouses: for mixed couples married this way, the Interior Ministry applies the protocol that applies to common-law couples. This process generally takes longer than the parallel process for married couples. Another issue that is likely to raise difficulties after a proxy marriage concerns the Interior Ministry’s impression of a “relationship that is not sincere”: this is one of the main reasons for rejecting applications to arrange legal status. However, it is important to remember that a rejection based on this reason can be appealed: the appeals court examines the case in detail, and is likely to intervene and overturn the decision to reject. For anyone submitting an appeal, it is of course highly recommended to obtain the services of an attorney with expertise on the issue.
Is it possible to get married remotely – via “Zoom”?
In recent years the U.S. state of Utah has decided to permit people to marry remotely via the Zoom program, even when the spouses are not located on U.S. soil. A number of couples who married in this way managed to register with the Interior Ministry. After the Interior Ministry discovered how the marriages were conducted, the Interior Minister decided to instruct Interior Ministry employees to refuse to register couples who married via Zoom, since they married without leaving Israeli territory and thus against the laws of personal status. In the wake of the Minister’s decision, an appeal was submitted to the Central Regional Court, which nullified the decision in July 2022. As of the writing of this article (January 2023), it is possible to get married in “Zoom marriages” and register the marriages with the Interior Ministry, but the issue is awaiting a final decision in the Supreme Court.
The Spousal Covenant Law – a solution for the case where both partners lack religious identification
In 2010 the Law on Spousal Covenants for the Religionless was passed, which states that when two partners who are not religiously identified, or belong to non-recognized religious communities, wish to receive official recognition of their relationship, they are permitted to make a spousal covenant whose legal status is virtually identical to that of a marriage.
What is the law regarding mixed-religion couples who want to get divorced?
When couples of two different religions want to get divorced, the relevant process is a claim to nullify the marriage which must be submitted by one of the spouses (or both, if the divorce is done by consent) to the Family Court.
Process of obtaining Israeli legal status for foreign spouses of Israelis
Many Israelis believe that they can marry their foreign spouses outside of Israel, return with them to Israel, and obtain legal status for their foreign spouse after landing in Israel. However, this is a serious error. Since if the border control officials at Ben Gurion Airport (or at any other border crossing) are likely to get the impression that the foreign spouse is being brought into Israel for the purposes of unifying with the Israeli spouse – there is a real fear that the foreign citizen’s entrance will encounter difficulties, including refusal of entrance.
Accordingly, it is often preferable to act according to the Interior Ministry’s protocol for foreign spouses of Israelis, whether they are married or common-law partners, and to arrange their legal status ahead of time, including obtaining an entrance visa for the foreign partner before their entrance to Israel. The Population and Immigration Authority’s protocol no. 5.2.0009 regulates the legal status of a foreign spouse based on a joint life with an Israeli citizen or permanent resident (including same-sex couples) and protocol no. 5.2.0008 regulates the status of a foreign spouse based on marriage to an Israeli citizen.
What are the considerations for and against civil marriage in Israel?
After everything we’ve written… why in fact is it impossible to marry in a civil wedding in the State of Israel, and why are many Israelis forced to travel abroad to marry in a civil ceremony – only after which are they permitted to register their marriage with the Interior Ministry? (Following the famous Supreme Court’s Funk-Schlesinger ruling.)
Since the lack of options for marrying in Israel outside of the religious institutions is a subject that arises constantly in the political discourse, the liberal, secular parties are trying to promote legislation to establish civil marriage in Israel. In contrast, the more conservative and religious parties oppose this legislation. At any rate, no political coalition has yet been found that has managed to pass legislation creating a track of civil marriage in Israel.
The main arguments for civil marriage in Israel are that it is the right of every citizen to choose how to marry, including the option of marrying without a religious framework. These proponents of civil marriage are seeking to break the monopoly of the rabbinate (as well as the religious institutions of the other religious communities) on the institution of marriage in Israel. Likewise, there are many situations in which couples cannot marry in Israel according to religious law, and thus many couples in Israel are forced to live together as common-law couples, or travel abroad to marry in a civil wedding.
The opponents of civil marriage in Israel point to Israel’s identity as a Jewish state. They say that Israel was established in order to allow the Jewish people to live in its homeland and preserve its ancient traditions. Legislating civil marriage would be, to these opponents, breaking the status quo that has existed since the foundation of the state, and would harm Israel as a Jewish country.
Studies show that a majority of Israeli citizens support the right to choose how to marry, that is: they are for civil marriage in Israel, but at the same time express their desire to enter marriage through the religious institutions. The conclusion is that apparently, even if a law is passed favoring civil marriage in Israel (something that is not likely to happen in the foreseeable future) – most Israelis will still choose to marry via the religious institutions.
The importance of legal counsel in the issue of civil marriages
If you are considering getting married in a civil wedding, or if you have already decided to marry in this way, it is important to obtain legal counsel. Our office specializes in the field of immigration and arranging legal status in Israel, and at any given moment we are representing hundreds of couples in everything regarding arranging legal status for foreign spouses with the Interior Ministry. We will be happy to answer any question or provide clarification on the issue of civil marriages. Our attorneys will present you with the various options before you and what documents you need to obtain, and we will provide ongoing legal counsel all along the way. To make an appointment with an attorney specializing in civil marriages, you are invited to contact us at our offices in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv via the details below.
This article was written together with attorney Adam Johnson.