Unlike a civil marriage, which is a legal marriage without religious affiliations, a putative marriage is not legally recognized by the government. A putative marriage will often start off by looking exactly like a civil marriage, especially because the putative couple will likely obtain a marriage license. This marriage license is technically null and void, however, according to the definition of putative marriage.
When a man or a woman enters a putative marriage, he or she thinks that he or she is entering into a regular civil marriage. It may take days or years to discover that the marriage is actually not legally supported.
Again, a putative marriage will likely be thought of as a civil marriage by external observers, and even by the spouses involved. At least one individual in the relationship must be unaware that the couple does not possess a valid marriage license for it to be considered a putative marriage. Because of this, the spouse that does not realize the falseness of the marriage is entitled to all the rights of a spouse who is seeking divorce with a civil marriage.
Laws about putative marriages are designed to protect the putative, or deceived, spouse. In a civil marriage, each spouse may be protected under laws to make sure that if the marriage ends, neither is left without a fair settlement. But in a case involving a putative marriage, only the putative spouse is protected. Although the marriage is not legitimate, the fact that one spouse, at least, both obtained a marriage license and believed in the validity of that marriage license proves that the spouse deserves putative status.
Sometimes both spouses are putative, which means that neither had any idea that a legal impediment was standing in the way of the marriage’s validity. In this instance, removing the legal impediment will make the marriage license valid. This would also retroactively validate the marriage license, such that it would be considered valid from the date on which the couple obtained the marriage license onward.
This allows the couple to avoid the process of obtaining a new marriage license. Once the marriage is validated, the couple is officially considered to be in a legal civil marriage.