A marriage of convenience is a marriage contracted for reasons other than that of love and commitment. Instead, such a marriage is entered into for personal gain, or some other sort of strategic purpose, such as a political marriage. There are some cases in which those married do not intend to live together as a couple, and typically got married only for one of them to gain the right to reside in a country, meaning a marriage of benefit.
A marriage of convenience that is neither a sham marriage entered into for fraudulent purposes nor a forced marriage, is not against the law.
In many cultures, it is usual for parents to decide their adult children's marriages; this is called an arranged marriage.
Marriages of convenience are often contracted to exploit legal loopholes of various sorts. A couple may wed for one of them to gain citizenship or right of abode, for example, as many countries around the world will grant such rights to anyone married to a resident citizen. In the United States, this practice is known as a green card marriage. In Australia, there have been marriages of convenience to bring attention to the government's Youth Allowance laws. On 31 March 2010 two students were publicly and legally married on the University of Adelaide's lawn so that they could both receive full Youth Allowance. In the United States during the era of the Vietnam War, some couples were wed during the man's time of exposure to the military draft; the couple agreed to no contact, followed by an annulment at the end of the (typically one year) marriage. Advertisements were commonly placed in student newspapers to this effect. Because they exploit legal loopholes, sham marriages of convenience often have legal consequences. For example, U.S. Immigration (USCIS) can punish this with a US$250,000 fine and five-year prison sentence.
The term “contract marriage” is used by U.S. military personnel when marrying mainly in order to receive extra pay and housing benefits that they would not receive if they were single.
Another common reason for marriages of convenience is to hide one partner's homosexuality in places where being openly gay is punishable or potentially detrimental. A sham marriage of this type, sometimes called a lavender marriage, is usually performed to keep the appearance of heterosexuality to prevent negative consequences of LGBT discrimination. Such marriages may have one heterosexual and one gay partner, or two gay partners: a lesbian and a gay man married to each other. In the case where a gay man marries a woman, the woman is sometimes said to be his "beard", while in the case where a lesbian marries a man, the man is sometimes said to be her "merkin".
The phrase "marriage of convenience" has also been generalized to mean any partnership between groups or individuals for their mutual (and sometimes illegitimate) benefit, or between groups or individuals otherwise unsuited to working together. An example would be a "national unity government", as existed in Israel during much of the 1980s or in the United Kingdom during World War II. More specifically, cohabitation refers to a political situation which can occur in countries with a semi-presidential system (especially France), where the president and the prime minister belong to opposed political camps.
Marriages of convenience, often termed marriages of state, have always been commonplace in royal, aristocratic, and otherwise powerful families, to make alliances between two powerful houses. Examples include the marriages of Agnes of Courtenay, her daughter Sibylla, Jeanne d'Albret, and Catherine of Aragon.
The Immigration Marriage Fraud Amendments Act of 1986 amended § 1325 by adding § 1325(c), which provides a penalty of five years' imprisonment and a $250,000 fine for any "individual who knowingly enters into a marriage for the purpose of evading any provision of the immigration laws."
"The maximum sentences for the above charges are:
- Conspiracy: 5 years in prison and a $250,000 fine
- Mail fraud: 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine
- Wire fraud: 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine
- False statement in immigration matter: 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine"