What is the difference between a civil partnership and marriage?

Marriage, civil partnerships, common-law spouses…there are lots of terms used to explain the living arrangements or relationship statuses of couples.

Changes to the law in 2018 means that there have been amendments to what we may have formerly understood about legal unions.

Read on for everything you need to know about civil partnerships, marriage, and the law.


What is a civil partnership?

Civil partnerships were first introduced in 2005 to enable same-sex couples similar ‘marital’ rights as heterosexual pairs.

However, a ruling by the Supreme Court in 2018 means that mix-sex couples are now legally allowed to enter a civil union. That was effective as of December 2nd, 2019.

It means that now heterosexual couples have the option between marriage or entering a civil partnership should they choose.

There are many reasons why a couple may decide not to embark on marriage, and these can include:

  • Religious, personal, or social beliefs
  • Disagreeing with the patriarchal or religions connotations of marriage

Who can enter into a civil partnership?

The current rules surrounding civil partnership dictate that for a civil union to be legal:

  • Each person must be at least 16 years old. However, those under 18 years of age will require parental consent
  • They must not be biologically related
  • One of the couples needs to be a full-time UK resident
  • Neither can already be married or in a civil partnership
  • They must be entering the union fully out of choice and not under coercion

Who can get married?

Marriage has always been available for mix-sex couples. However, in 2014, legislation allowing same-sex marriage came into force in the UK.

As a result, marriage is open to everyone, except for Northern Ireland. There, same-sex marriage is not legal. Same-sex couples who are married in England and Wales are treated as civil partners in Northern Ireland.

In Britain you can legally get married if you are:

  • At least 16 years old to get married in the UK. If you are under 18 years old in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, you will need parental permission.
  • Not currently married or in a civil partnership
  • Not closely related
  • You must apply for an applicable Visa or permit if you are from outside the EU, EEA or Switzerland. Also, if you are not a British citizen or you do not have indefinite leave to stay in the UK. 

More information about the requirements is available on the government website.

What do the changes in the law mean? 

The Supreme Court ruled that not allowing heterosexual couples to enter into a civil partnership was a breach of human rights. Therefore the 2004 Civil Partnership Act, citing that only same-sex couples are eligible for this union, was overturned.

What are the differences between a marriage and a civil partnership?

There are a few differences between marriage and a civil partnership.

These are:

  • Marriage is an agreement based on vows, whereas the signing of a legal document forms the bond of a civil union
  • A marriage can take place in the form of either a religious or civil ceremony. However, a civil partnership is an entirely civil process, with no requirement for a ceremony to take place.
  • Marriage is ended through the process of a divorce (a decree absolute). However, a civil partnership is terminated by a dissolution (dissolution order). However, the procedure is effectively the same.
  • While a civil partnership is recognised in several countries, it is not accepted everywhere. Comparatively, marriage is recognised globally as legally binding. If you intend to emigrate or travel, it is best to research what your rights are.
  • Adultery is not a legitimate reason to dissolve a civil partnership, but it can be used to divorce.
  • Civil partners cannot call themselves ‘married’ for legal reasons
  • A marriage certificate requires just the names of both partners’ fathers, while a civil partnership certificate requires the names of both parents.


What are the similarities between a marriage and a civil partnership?

A civil partnership should not be viewed as a less bonding or legalised version of marriage. While a civil partnership is not sealed with the same religious or profoundly traditional connotations of marriage, the obligations and expectations are almost identical.

Whether you are heterosexual or a cohabiting couple, the main draw for a civil union is that you will have the same legal entitlements as those who are married.

The key dispensations are as follows:

  • Tax exemption for gifts or donations between civil partners
  • The Children’s Act now gives civil partners the same rights as married couples
  • Civil partners can apply for the same financial orders that are available to married pairs if their relationship breaks down
  • Civil partners are entitled to specific provisions and contributions for property improvements
  • Civil partnerships are eligible for the same provisions on death as married couples. For example, the position of civil partners will be the same as spouses who die without a will
  • The law and levels of protection are now the same for civil partners as married spouses in respect of domestic violence

What about alternatives for marriage or a civil partnership?

You may not want to get married or enter into a civil partnership. It is all down to individual choice. However, you may also be worried about your legal rights and financial security, especially if you have children.

In this event, you may want to consider a cohabitation agreement. This is a legal form of protection. It sets out how you will support and care for your children as well as defining how you will split any bank accounts, pension schemes, debts, and joint purchases like vehicles.

Furthermore, you can also use a cohabitation agreement to define who owns which assets while you live together. As well as explaining your joint finances, such as how much you both pay towards the mortgage, rent or bills.

Is a civil partnership the same as having a ‘common-law spouse’? 

It is a common misconception that couples who live together for a prolonged period gain certain legal rights that can be called into action if they separate or one of the party dies.

Couples who live together have no exclusive rights in any form. There is no legal obligation or right to financial assistance, even if one party has foregone a career to raise children. The only allowable claim is those administered by very historical laws of property.

Key Takeaway

People have more choice than ever about how they wish to validate their relationships. The choices are becoming more equal and legally more accessible.

However, it is essential to understand what each of the options means to you, your partner, and your family.

If you are considering a civil partnership or marriage and want more guidance, then contact one of our experienced family law solicitors today.

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