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05 February 2020

The difference between civil partnerships and marriage

Since 31 December 2019 couples of the opposite sex have been able to enter into a civil partnership. Following this momentous change, both opposite and same sex couples in England and Wales can now choose between a civil partnership and marriage when they formalise their relationship. This is a welcome development that legally recognises the multiple ways in which people choose to live their lives in today’s society.

What is a civil partnership?

A civil partnership is a legal relationship entered into by a couple which is registered and provides them with similar legal rights to married couples.

Civil partnerships were introduced in 2005 to provide legal recognition and protection for same sex couples. Since then the law has further developed to enable marriages between same sex couples too. This created the unusual situation whereby same sex couples had the choice of marriage or civil partnership, but opposite sex couples were restricted to marriage only.

There are a variety of reasons why couples choose not to marry, for example, those who have been married before may have personal or religious beliefs for not repeating the process, whereas others object to the patriarchal or religious associations of a traditional marriage and marriage ceremony.

This lack of choice was seen by many as a breach of human rights, most notably in the highly publicised case of Rebecca Steinfield and Charles Keidan in which the Supreme Court unanimously declared that their human rights had been breached.

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

There are few notable differences:

  • marriage is formed by vows, whereas a civil partnership is formed by signing the civil partnership document; and
  • marriages are ended by divorce, whereas civil partnerships are ended by dissolution, although the process is fundamentally the same.

Civil partnership is not in any way a form of ’marriage-lite’. While civil partnerships do not come with the same traditional and religious connotations, the rights and obligations are almost identical to those of marriage. This extends not only to the available financial provision upon separation but also in respect of the rules of inheritance and available tax entitlements.

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

In short, no! It is a complete misconception that couples who live together for an extended period acquire legal rights that put them in a position akin to a divorcing couple.

Couples who live together but have not married or formed a civil partnership have no special rights.  There is no right to share assets or to request ongoing financial assistance by way of maintenance for themselves, even if one party has given up work to look after children. The only claims that can be made are governed by very historical laws of property.

Given the options that are now available, people have more choice than ever about if and how they formalise their relationships, so it is vital to understand what each option means for you and your family.

If you would like further advice in respect of the options available then please do contact a member of our specialist family and matrimonial team.

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