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Guide to Civil Partnerships

In recent years, both marriage and civil partnership have become available as options for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. With these options available, it is more important than ever to understand the similarities and differences between the two. 

What is a civil partnership?

All couples that wish to have their relationship legally recognised can opt for civil partnership over marriage. Civil partnership ensures the same legal rights and protections as marriage. In contemporary society, there are many couples that do not want to get married because they consider it to be dated, carrying disproportionate religious influence, and too many negative historical and patriarchal connotations, particularly for women (for example, traditions relating to the bride adopting the grooms last name, and to the father handing his daughter over to another man). Couples that opt for civil partnership over marriage appreciate its emphasis on the civil rather than religious aspects of union and on the idea of creating a commitment agreement between equal partners that offers legal protection and benefits to them both. 

Civil partnership first became available in the UK through the Civil Partnership Act 2004 (passed on 21 December 2005), and it was initially only available to same-sex couples. For a period of time, therefore, same-sex couples could only avail of civil partnership, and opposite-sex couples could only avail of marriage.

Changes to the law were implemented - same-sex marriage became possible through the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, and opposite-sex civil partnership became possible through the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019. The latter piece of legislation was effected largely through a successful Supreme Court case brought by Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan which argued a breach of human rights for opposite-sex couples and pushed for a change in the law.

Differences to marriage

Civil partners have the same property, inheritance tax, social security and pension rights and benefits as married couples. They can easily acquire tenancy rights, life insurance recognition, next-of-kin rights for medical issues, parental responsibility for the partners children and responsibility for maintenance of the partner and children. Highlighted below are comparably minor but key differences:

  • Legal provisions and terms - Differing legislation applies to each form of union. Civil partners cannot call themselves married, and married couples cannot call themselves civil partners.
  • Formation - Marriages are formalised with a specific, often religious, form of words, and conducted through a civil or religious ceremony. Civil partnerships are registered by signing a civil partnership document with no words needing been spoken, and conducted through an entirely civil event.
  • Divorce/Dissolution - While marriage is ended by divorce, civil partnerships are ended by a dissolution. The legal process involved is very similar as is the terminology (since the coming into force of the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 in April 2022).
  • Recognition overseas - Opposite-sex marriages formed in England and Wales are recognised internationally while, for both same-sex marriages and same-sex and opposite-sex civil partnerships it is recommended that advice is sought about rights and recognition depending on the overseas location.

Differences to cohabitation

Civil partnership is very different to cohabitation. For those not familiar with what civil partnership is these two situations can often be confused with people assuming that certain rights are acquired simply through living together, known as common law marriage in other jurisdictions. Civil partnership is more akin to marriage therefore the differences similar to the significant differences we recognise between marriage and cohabitation.

Couples that cohabit will have some legal rights particularly where they have purchased property jointly, or where they share children. In addition, they may have entered into a formal cohabitation agreement which would confer certain rights. Generally though, they do not have the rights and benefits that civil partners enjoy. Different legal rules will apply in areas such as:

  • Property - ownership and tenancy rights
  • Inheritance (particularly where no will) and tax
  • Children - whether shared or adopted
  • Medical consent and next-of-kin issues
  • Financial and banking issues
  • Separation and financial support
  • Pensions issues
  • Domestic Violence

Entering into a civil partnership

In order to enter into a civil partnership, each party must:

  • Be a minimum of 18 years of age (from 27 February 2023 with the coming into force of the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022, which amends the minimum age from 16 to 18 years)
  • Have lived in the same area of England and Wales for at least 7 days
  • Have not been previously married or in a civil partnership

Notice of the union must be given at least 29 days in advance to the local authority in which the couple have lived for the previous seven days (this is the registration district in the case of marriage). Formation takes place through the signing of a civil partnership document before two witnesses and a registrar.

The information on this website is intended as a guide and does not constitute legal advice. Vardags do not accept liability for any errors in the information on this website, nor any losses stemming from reliance upon the statements made herein. All articles and pages aim to reflect the legal position at time they were published, and may have been rendered obsolete by subsequent developments in the law. Should you require specialist advice, tailored to your situation, please see how Vardags can help you.

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