Civil Partnership or Marriage? Is there a difference?

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 (or over 16 with parents’ permission)
  • 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 set to be 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 will include 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 versus dissolution

A marriage, whether opposite or same-sex, can be ended by divorce on the ground that the marriage has broken down irretrievably and relying on one of the following:

  1. The respondent has committed adultery and the petitioner finds it intolerable to live with the respondent (the definition of adultery is sexual intercourse with someone of the opposite sex outside the marriage)
  2. The respondent has behaved in such a way that the petitioner cannot reasonably be expected to live with them.
  3. Desertion for 2 years.
  4. Separation for 2 years and the respondent consents to the divorce.
  5. Separation for 5 years.

It is important to note however that in same sex marriage adultery cannot be relied on because the term ‘adultery’ has a specific legal definition relating to heterosexual intercourse. If infidelity is the reason for the irretrievable breakdown you can state this as a reason for dissolution of a civil partnership under the element of ‘unreasonable behaviour’ 

The grounds are the same for Civil Partnership dissolution apart from one key element – adultery cannot be used as a ground for dissolution of Civil Partnerships, even for heterosexual couples. 

In summary, there is little legal difference between the two types of union.  The main difference is perhaps how the relationship is brought to an end.  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 forming a civil partnership please contact the Family department at Smith Partnership.