The Difference Between Marriage and Civil Partnership

The difference between marriage and civil partnership isn’t just about whether you make your commitment known in a church or a registry office. There are differences in a number of administrative aspects of civil partnerships when compared to marriage.

Working out which is the right option for you will depend on your opinions on a few different factors.

Who can get married?

Marriage has always been available for heterosexual couples. In 2014, legislation allowing same-sex marriage came into force in the UK. This means that marriage is open to everyone in the UK, except in Northern Ireland, where same-sex marriage is not legal. Same-sex couples who married in England and Wales will be treated as civil partners in Northern Ireland.

Couples who wish to get married can give formal notice of their intention to marry at their local register office. Same-sex couples are free to get married in civil ceremonies, but they can only get married in religious ceremonies if their religious organisation has agreed to marry same-sex couples. Same-sex couples are unable to get married in the Church of England or the Church in Wales.

This means that legally, everyone aged 16 or over, not already married or in a civil partnership and not closely related to their partner can get married.

Who can enter into a civil partnership?

Civil partnerships are a little more complicated. They were introduced in 2004 as a way for same-sex couples to obtain the same legal rights as married couples.

This meant they were unavailable to mixed-sex couples. But this didn’t stop one heterosexual couple who decided they wanted to break with convention and opt for a civil partnership. When Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan discovered they were legally unable to, they took their petition to the courts.

The Supreme Court eventually ruled in their favour, with then-prime minister Theresa May later announcing that civil partnerships would be made available to heterosexual couples. Steinfeld and Keidan have since entered into a civil partnership

On the day it was introduced (31 December 2019), 167 opposite sex couples entered a civil partnership. 2019 saw a total of 994 civil partnerships formed in England and Wales.

Since that day, it has been possible for all couples to enter into a civil partnership in England and Wales. It became legal in Northern Ireland in 2020 and in Scotland in 2021.

The difference between marriage and civil partnership

In terms of officially committing to spending your life with your partner, there aren’t many significant differences between marriage and civil partnership.

However, some do exist:

  • Civil partners cannot call themselves ‘married’ for legal purposes
  • A marriage is ended with divorce by obtaining a decree absolute, while a civil partnership is ended with dissolution by obtaining a dissolution order
  • Adultery is not a valid reason to dissolve a civil partnership, but it can be used to divorce

Previously, marriage certificates only featured the names of the couple's fathers. This is going to be updated to feature mothers' names too, like civil partnership certificates.

The similarities between marriage and civil partnership

When it comes to rights shared by civil partners, there are a number that are similar to married couples. They share the same property rights, pension benefits and the ability to obtain parental responsibility for a partner’s child.

They also have the same rights of next of kin in hospitals as married couples and are also exempt from inheritance tax.

In terms of legalities that may have an impact on the general day-to-day life of couples, there are more similarities than there are differences between marriage and civil partnership.

Converting civil partnership into marriage

If you entered into a civil partnership before 2014, but perhaps always wanted to be married, it is now possible. You can convert your civil partnership into a legal marriage in the UK.

There are many reasons a couple may choose to do this, but one of them may be to keep their sexuality private. Stating that you’re in a civil partnership on official forms has been referred to as ‘forced outing’ as you’re effectively declaring your sexuality. Because civil partnerships have only been available to same-sex couples – until the government changes that – it becomes obvious that you are part of one.

In England and Wales, you can convert your civil partnership into a marriage at a register office, a local registration office or a religious or approved premises where same sex marriages are allowed.

The rules are different in Scotland, where different paperwork is required, and Northern Ireland does not allow conversions of civil partnerships to marriage.

Ending a marriage or a civil partnership

The incoming no-fault divorce is set to make ending a marriage more straightforward. Similar changes are also going to come into effect around the dissolution of a civil partnership.

This is the first major change in divorce law in decades, allowing couples to split without blaming one another. Couples will be able to divorce without one person having to prove wrongdoing on the part of the other.

Currently, married couples are only able to divorce on the following grounds:

  • Adultery

This is when your spouse has had intercourse with someone of the opposite sex. You cannot state adultery as your reason for applying for divorce if you continued to live with your spouse for six months after finding out.

  • Unreasonable behaviour

If your spouse has acted in such a way that you cannot be expected to live with them, you can apply for a divorce on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour. This includes physical violence, verbal abuse, drug-taking or excessive drinking and refusing to contribute towards shared living expenses.

  • Desertion

If your spouse left you at least two years before applying for divorce, you can claim desertion.

  • Separation for at least two years

You can apply for divorce if you’ve been separated for at least two years and you and your spouse both agree to it.

  • Separation for at least five years

If your spouse does not agree to a divorce, you can still apply for one if you have been separated for at least five years.

To end a civil partnership, you currently have to prove the above grounds, with the exception of adultery, which is not an option. However, the incoming legislation will make it easier to dissolve a civil partnership without placing blame on your partner.

The government has not yet stated when the new legislation will be introduced.

Alternatives to marriage and civil partnership

If you have chosen to live with your partner, but don’t want to enter into a marriage or civil partnership, you may think you’d be considered ‘common law spouses’. However, according to Citizens Advice, “although the terms common-law wife or husband are frequently used to describe a couple who live together, these relationships do not have legal recognition”.

This could leave many people in for a shock when their relationships end and they discover they are not entitled to what they thought they were. Indeed, a 2017 study by Resolution found that two-thirds of people in cohabiting relationships are unaware that there is no such thing as common law marriage in the UK.

Resolution explained that it is possible “to live with someone for decades and even have children together and then simply walk away without taking any responsibility for a former partner if the relationship breaks down”.

A cohabitation agreement offers some protection, however. It sets out how you will support your children beyond legal duties to provide care and support, as well as defines how you will split any bank accounts, pension schemes, debts and joint purchases like vehicles.

You can also use a cohabitation agreement to outline who owns which assets while you live together and explain your joint finances, such as how much you both pay towards the mortgage, rent or bills.

If you’re interested in entering into a marriage, civil partnership or cohabitation agreement, First4Lawyers can help. We can help you find the right solicitor for your individual circumstances. Just give us a call, request a call back at the top of your screen or start your enquiry here.

First4Lawyers are a team of legal professionals, marketers and business developers, offering nationwide services to assist people in getting justice.

We specialise in Medical Negligence, Accidents at Work, Personal Injury and other legal services.


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