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What is the difference between civil partnership and marriage?

27 January

What is the difference between civil partnership and marriage?

At the end of last month, on 31st December 2019, many opposite-sex couples were able to celebrate the formalisation of their relationships with a civil partnership.

What is a Civil Partnership?

Over fifteen years ago, Civil Partnerships were created to give same-sex couples a legal relationship. They were introduced in 2004 to provide same-sex couples with the opportunity to gain similar legal and financial protection and rights as married couples.

So, same-sex couples can enter into a marriage or a civil partnership?

2013 saw this area of law developing further, as the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act was put in place, allowing same-sex couples to marry. Therefore, same-sex couples had a choice between entering into a marriage or a civil partnership.

However, opposite-sex couples did not have the same options

Opposite-sex couples only had the option of marriage as a legal relationship. In 2018, an opposite-sex couple, Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, sought permission to enter into an opposite-sex civil partnership. The legal campaign was considered by the Supreme Court, and it was decided that it was discriminatory to not allow opposite-sex civil partnerships. This meant that the Civil Partnership Act was actually ‘incompatible’ with the European Convention on Human Rights, so Rebecca and Charles were successful! Their campaign sparked a change in the law.

Now, opposite-sex couples also have the choice of either marriage or a civil partnership

Opposite-sex couples are now able to register their intent to form a civil partnership, giving the required 28 days notice to do so. The change into law came into force on 2nd December 2019, so ceremonies were able to take place from New Year’s Eve 2019 – what a way to celebrate coming into 2020!

Bell & Buxton welcome this news and the equality that it provides for all couples to gain legal rights, in the way that suits them.

But what are the differences between civil partnership and marriage?


  • Civil partnership certificates include the name of both parents of the parties, whereas marriage certificates only include the names of the fathers of the parties.
  • Marriages require a prescribed form of words to be spoken, however civil partnerships have no required words and instead are registered by signing a document.
  • At present, a marriage can be brought to an end on the ground that the marriage has irretrievably broken down based on one of five facts – one of which is adultery. However, adultery can’t be used as a reasoning for ending a civil partnership. This is due to the legal definition of adultery, which states that sexual intercourse must have taken place with someone of the opposite sex outside of the marriage. Therefore it cannot be committed with someone of the same sex. It may be that this point changes in the future, in light of the recent reforms!
  • It may be that a couple wants to form a civil partnership to secure their legal rights, but plan to marry later in their lives, which is potentially more costly and time consuming.
  • If you are in a marriage that breaks down, you would apply for a divorce, whereas for a civil partnership, this would be dissolution. The same form is used, paying the same court fee, and the same process is followed, for the same result. Financial matters and children arrangements are also resolved in exactly the same way whether you are married or in a civil partnership.


  • Marriage ceremonies can be either civil or religious, however a civil partnership event is entirely civil and involves no religious connotations – a ceremony can take place afterwards if the couple wish, but it is not part of the formation.


  • Some couples just do not feel that that institution of marriage is right for them. The historical connotations and traditions within a marriage ceremony might be unappealing, outdated or patriarchal to some couples.
  • Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, mentioned above, wished to “formalise [their] relationship in a more modern way, with a focus on equality, and mutual respect.”


Do cohabiting couples get the same protections and rights?

Unfortunately, many people still believe that ‘common law marriage’ exists – the idea that living together as a couple for a long time, affords the same rights as a married couple. This is not the case!

This belief means that cohabiting couples face upset and vulnerability if they separate, or if a partner dies, and they do not have the financial rights that they expected.

There is no legislation in place to protect people who live together without them being married or in a civil partnership. Cohabiting couples will not be affected by the recent change in the law. They will still lack inheritance and other rights in respect of each other.

Now that there is the possibility for all couples to enter into a civil partnership, this may be a good idea for couples who have been living together but do not want to marry.

The Family Law team at Bell & Buxton are here to support you through a divorce or a dissolution, and we are pleased that all couples now have the right to choose what is right for them.