Difference between marriage and civil partnership
Family law

What is the difference between marriage and civil partnership?

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Walker Family Law
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Since 2019 all couples wishing to form a legal relationship have had two options: marriage or civil partnership. But what are the differences between the two?

Before looking at the differences, a quick reminder of how we got here.

Difference between marriage and civil partnership

Until 2005 there was only one form of legal relationship in the UK: marriage between opposite-sex couples.

That changed when civil partnerships for same sex couples were introduced in December 2005. The essential idea at the time was that same sex couples should be entitled to enter into legal relationships, but there was then still opposition to them being allowed to marry, hence the introduction of civil partnerships.

The next change occurred in 2014, when it was decided that the time was right to allow same sex couples to marry, which they have been able to do since March of that year in England and Wales. When making this change, Parliament consciously decided not to abolish same sex civil partnerships or to extend them to different sex couples.

But that position did not last. The final change came in December 2019 when civil partnerships were opened up for opposite-sex couples, thus giving the two options to all couples.

Exploring the difference between marriage and civil partnership

OK, so having summarised how we got to this point, what exactly is the difference between marriage and civil partnership?

The simple answer is: not much.

The eligibility conditions for marriage and civil partnership are identical: both parties must be aged 18 or over (as from 27 February 2023, after which it will not be possible for anyone under 18 to marry or enter a civil partnership), the parties must not already be married or in a civil partnership, and they must not be closely related.

Perhaps the biggest difference between marriage and civil partnership relates to their formation.

Marriages are solemnised by saying a prescribed form of words, and can be conducted through either a civil ceremony, or a religious ceremony (in the case of same sex marriage, if the religious organisation has agreed to solemnize marriages of same sex couples according to its rites).

Civil partnerships, on the other hand, are registered by signing the civil partnership document, with no words required to be spoken. The formation of a civil partnership is an entirely civil event. Where the civil partnership is formed on religious premises (where the religious organisation agrees to host same sex civil partnership), the ceremony may be religious, as long as the actual formation remains secular.

Another small difference is that married couples cannot call themselves ‘civil partners’ for legal purposes, and civil partners cannot call themselves ‘married’ for legal purposes.

The tax treatment of married couples and civil partners is similar, for example, in relation to income tax and inheritance tax (despite the name, the income tax marriage allowance is available to all married couples and civil partners).

And the rules on intestacy are the same for married couples and civil partners, so that if one party dies without making a will, the entitlement of the other in relation to the deceased’s estate will be the same, no matter whether they were married or in a civil partnership.

One important consideration, however, is that whereas marriage is universally recognised, civil partnership is not recognised in all countries. A couple in a civil partnership will therefore have to consider the local laws if they intend to move abroad.

Lastly, the way in which the relationship is ended on breakdown is essentially the same, with the only difference that it is referred to as ‘divorce’ for married couples and ‘dissolution’ for civil partners.

The patriarchal nature of marriage

Before concluding, it should be mentioned that the law entitling opposite sex couples to enter in civil partnerships was enacted following a campaign by an opposite sex couple, who wanted to be able to enter into a civil partnership, rather than get married.

The couple had deep-rooted and genuine ideological objections to marriage, based upon what they considered to be its historically patriarchal nature. They considered that the status of civil partnership would reflect their values, and give due recognition to the equal nature of their relationship.

The campaign culminated in a Supreme Court case in June 2018, when it was found that the law, which treated opposite sex couples differently from same sex couples, was incompatible with the couple’s human rights.

In summary, there is very little practical difference between marriage and civil partnership, certainly not so far as the law of England and Wales is concerned. It is more a matter of perception: how you view each form of legal relationship, and how others may view it.

Ian Walker Family Law & Mediation Solicitors are award-winning family solicitors and are recognised as one of the leading family law firms in the South West of England with services covering family law & mediationdivorcechild law, and arbitration. For expert advice, please contact the team.