Civil Partnership or Marriage? Is there a difference?

The answer is yes however opposite and same-sex couples have the choice of getting married or entering into a civil partnership.

Many people now consider marriage and civil partnerships as one and the same, the same commitment just with a different title. Often, a civil partner will be referred to as a person’s ‘husband’ or ‘wife’ but there are some key differences.

Marriage and civil partnership are two separate procedures each with distinct and separate legislation governing them. 

The provision for marriage is set out it the Marriage Act 1949, with same sex marriage introduced in the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013.

The provision for civil partnership is set out in the Civil Partnership Act 2004, with opposite sex civil partnership introduced in the Civil Partnership (Opposite Sex Couples) Regulations 2019.

The eligibility for marriage and civil partnership are the same.  A couple may enter into a marriage or civil partnership if they are:

  • Over 18 (since the 27th February 2023 16-17 year olds can no longer marry or enter a civil partnership under any circumstances including, with parental or judicial consent)
  • Not already married or in a civil partnership
  • Not related within a prohibited degree of relationship

The way the unions are formed are different.  Marriages are solemnised by the saying of a prescribed form of words, whereas civil partnerships are registered by signing a civil partnership document (you can enter a civil partnership with no ceremony and without saying anything!).

Civil partnerships cannot be religious.  Both same-sex or opposite sex marriage ceremonies can be civil or religious however for same-sex marriages it is worth noting that the religious organisation in question must have agreed to solemnise marriages of same-sex couples according to its rites, and few of the major religious organisation in the UK have done so.

The formation of a civil partnership is always an exclusively civil event. There may be a ceremony around the registering of a civil partnership, and this will sometimes include a religious element, but the civil partnership is formed when signing the civil partnership document and this must remain secular.

The administrative process is similar.  Notice must be given of an intention to marry or enter into a civil partnership no less than 29 days in advance.

Marriages have historically been registered on paper, in a hard copy of the register whilst civil partnerships are recorded in an electronic register.  However with effect from the 11th May 2021 Marriages are also now recorded digitally for the first time since registry records began in 1837.

In Civil Partnerships the details of both parents, not just father’s, have always been included on the civil partnership certificate whereas a marriage certificate only included the name of the father (or step-father) of the parties. However with effect from the 11th May 2021 a change to the Marriage Act means it now includes all four parents, alongside their job occupations. 

An opposite sex marriage formed in England and Wales is recognised internationally.

A same-sex marriage formed in England and Wales will only be recognised in countries that recognise same-sex marriage.

Civil partnerships, whether same-sex or opposite sex, are recognised in many countries but recognition is not as universal as the recognition in place for marriage.

If you are entering a same-sex marriage or an opposite sex or same-sex civil partnership, it is important to check whether your union will be recognised if you intend to live abroad in the future.

Divorce or dissolution

Since 6th April 2022, there was a major change to the divorce reform in that the concept of fault (adultery or unreasonable behaviour) or a period of separation were effectively done away with. Under the new law, either one or indeed both spouses, jointly, simply make a statement that the marriage has irretrievably broken down. That statement in itself is conclusive evidence that the marriage has irretrievably broken down and will enable the Court to make a Divorce Order.

The same ground applies for the dissolution of a Civil partnership.

In summary, there is little legal difference between the two types of union. Couples in a civil partnership have the same legal rights, responsibilities and obligations including the acquisition of parental responsibility, child maintenance, pension entitlement on death and the ability to make financial claims in respect of property, pensions or in income on divorce or dissolution. 

That said marriage does come with historical, religious and gender connotations and even the recent changes to the details on the marriage certificate, remain unappealing for some whilst of fundamental importance to others. 

If you would like further advice on the legal implications of entering into a marriage or forming a civil partnership, or any other aspect of family law, contact our expert family law solicitors via Alternatively, speak to a member of our team directly on 0330 123 1229.

Share this article