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Marriage and Civil Partnerships: What are the key differences?

March 2014 was the month of a great leap forward for marriage equality: same-sex marriage was finally recognised by UK law, and since then both same-sex and opposite-sex couples have been free to marry. It’s also still possible to get a civil partnership of course, and many same-sex couples still choose to opt for them. There’s also the difference between religious marriage and civil marriage. With so many different options for those tying the knot, it’s no wonder that there is often confusion around exactly what the legal standpoint is on the differing forms of union. So, we thought we’d clear up some of the common questions and misconceptions around the topic.

What’s the difference?

From a legal standpoint, much is the same between marriage and civil partnerships. Civil partners have most of the same rights as married couples in the eyes of the law. For example, couples who are married or in civil partnerships share the same rights and obligations over basic legal principles such as parental responsibility, next-of-kin rights, inheritance tax, child maintenance and many more. However, there are a few small differences between marriage and civil partnerships:

  • If you are in a civil partnership, you cannot legally refer to yourself as ‘married’.
  • On a marriage certificate, the father’s names of both parties must be on the certificate. For a civil partnership certificate, the names of both parents of each party must be included.
  • There can sometimes be a difference in particular situations relating to survivor pension schemes: the survivor can only get the benefits post-2005, which was when civil partnerships were first recognised.

Who can get married?

Any opposite-sex or same-sex couple can get married, providing a few conditions are met:

  • You must be 16 years old or over.
  • You must have parental consent if under 18 years old.
  • You must be ‘free to marry’, i.e. you are single, widowed, divorced, or were in a civil partnership that has been legally dissolved.
  • You must not be closely related.

Religious marriages and civil marriages are regarded as the same in the eyes of the law – the difference is in the ceremony. Any couple can have a religious ceremony provided the religious body allows it, but this means there are some differences in what is available for same-sex couples. For example, same-sex couples currently cannot have a religious ceremony in the Church of England.

If you are already in a civil partnership but want to be married, it is possible to legally convert your civil partnership into a marriage – find out how here.

Who can get a civil partnership?

The same conditions apply to those looking to obtain a civil partnership. However, there is one extra condition: you must be a same-sex couple.

Civil partnerships were introduced in order to allow same-sex couples to have similar legal status to married couples. In a way, civil partnerships were brought in to pave the way towards same-sex marriage. For these reasons, civil partnerships are still only available for same-sex couples.

Some heterosexual couples are campaigning for the right to become civil partners, with a view to having the choice between marriage and civil partnerships, instead of only the traditional option of marriage. A recent case made the news when a couple argued the law discriminates against heterosexual couples based on their sexual orientation, but the Court of Appeal rejected the case.

What’s the difference when it comes to divorce?

When a civil partnership is brought to an end it is legally referred to as dissolution rather than divorce, which is a word used only for marriage. The process and framework of civil partnership dissolution is very similar to divorce.

When going through divorce proceedings, one of five reasons for divorce must be cited. These are:

  • Desertion
  • Unreasonable behaviour 
  • Adultery
  • Two years separation (with consent from your partner)
  • Five years separation (without need for consent)

The key difference here is that in the dissolution of a civil partnership, adultery may not be cited as a reason. This is because adultery is a specific legal term relating to heterosexual relationships and cannot be a reason for dissolving a civil partnership. If your civil partner was unfaithful, you would instead be able to cite unreasonable behaviour.

Crisp & Co’s expert divorce and family lawyers are highly experienced in all legal matters relating to marriage, civil partnerships, divorce and civil partnership dissolution. No two situations are the same – we provide practical advice tailored for your family’s individual needs. To find out how we can help you, get in touch with one of our friendly solicitors today.

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