Civil partnership: a guide

Civil Partnership Guide, Registering, Heterosexual couples included, ending civil partnerships

What is a civil partnership?

A civil partnership is a way for couples, whether heterosexual or same sex, to formalise their relationship, without getting married. Civil partners have the same rights as married couples and legal rights covering issues such as:

  • parental responsibility
  • inheritance tax
  • social security
  • tenancy rights
  • life insurance recognition
  • next of kin rights.

There is no legal requirement for a civil partnership to be accompanied by a ceremony or an exchange of vows.  Couples can of course choose to incorporate these elements in celebration of their partnership.

Currently, you can only convert a same-sex civil partnership to a marriage. 

The common law marriage myth

Only through a valid civil partnership or marriage can a couple acquire automatic legal rights as a couple that protect them in the event of separation or death.  It is not the case that a couple who have lived together for a long time and/or have children together will have any legal rights as a couple and responsibilities to support each other in the event of separation – the concepts of ‘common law wife’ and ‘common law marriage’ have no legal status.  If you intend to enter into a cohabiting relationship or are in a cohabiting relationship, take advice from a solicitor to ensure that you are protected.

How does civil partnership differ from marriage in the UK?

While both forms of partnership have similar rights from a legal point of view, there are differences in the way they are created and ended. 

To enter into a civil partnership, couples are required to sign a civil partnership document in the presence of two witnesses and a registrar. A marriage instead requires the exchange of words (vows) at a formal religious or civil ceremony. The civil partnership certificate includes the names of both parents of each partner, whereas a marriage certificate only includes their fathers’ names.

Consummation is currently a prerequisite for a valid marriage in England and Wales, meaning failure to consummate a marriage is a ground for annulment.  Civil partnerships cannot be annulled on a ground of non-consummation. This offers an alternative for those couples who believe that consummation should not be a prerequisite to a formalised partnership.

A civil partnership is ended by a Dissolution Order, but marriage is ended by a Final Order (Divorce); both are lengthy procedures.

Dissolving a civil partnership

If you want to end a civil partnership, you need to apply to the court for a ‘dissolution order’, by confirming that your partnership has irretrievably broken down. You will also need to agree with your partner on how to resolve practical and financial issues. The process used to end a civil partnership is called a ‘dissolution’.  The first step is applying for, and completing, a dissolution application form.

Dissolving a civil partnership can be straightforward when both partners are in agreement. However, if you disagree over practical issues (childcare, finances and property) then the process can be longer and more complex and require the involvement of solicitors to aid with negotiations. 

When can I apply to end a civil partnership?

You can apply to dissolve a civil partnership one year after you entered into it. To end a civil partnership in England and Wales, one (or both) of you must live in England or Wales (or be domiciled here -i.e. consider their ultimate home to be here). It does not matter in which country you entered into the partnership.

What are the grounds for ending a civil partnership?

You will need to confirm on the application that the relationship has broken down irretrievably. It is no longer necessary to cite fault – such as unreasonable behaviour or adultery, which was necessary until 2022.

To start the dissolution proceedings, you will need to complete an application form which can be made by one partner or by both partners as a joint application.

The application can be completed on paper or online and in either case, the court fee for processing the application is £563.  You will need to provide your original partnership certificate in the case of an application on paper, or a scanned copy of it if you're applying online.

What happens after I send the application to the court?

The court will process your application.  If you've made a sole application, the court will send your civil partner (or their solicitor) a copy of the application and a form to acknowledge receipt of the documentation. The only bases to dispute the dissolution are jurisdiction (i.e. where the divorce should take place), the validity of a marriage or civil partnership or that the civil partnership has already ended.

If you've made a joint application with your partner, the court will send both parties a notice of proceedings.

20 weeks after the application was first issued, you (or you and your partner together) can apply for a conditional order, which is the first stage in the dissolution process.  In that application, you confirm that the details given in the original application are correct and you wish the proceedings to proceed.

Assuming the application is correct, the court will make a conditional order.  Six weeks and one day after the conditional order is made, an application can be made for the final dissolution order which ends the civil partnership.  

How long does it take to end a civil partnership?

The application for a conditional order (the first stage) cannot be made less than 20 weeks from the date of the original application, and then the application for a final order cannot be made less than six weeks from the date of the conditional order.  However, there are other circumstances that are likely to have an impact on how long it takes to obtain a final order.

Starting the process with a joint application will get the process off to the most conciliatory start. But time will need to be built in for completing and signing documentation on a joint basis.

There can be delays in the court processing the applications.  This is beyond the control of the parties or any solicitors involved.

Importantly, it is usually sensible to wait until after a financial agreement has been made (and approved by the court) before applying for the final order. For more information read our article on the importance of obtaining a financial consent order.  In many cases reaching a financial agreement (or an agreement in relation to the children of the partnership) takes longer than the dissolution itself.  However, it is crucial that the appropriate time is taken for advice and agreement on finances, even if that holds up your final order.  A solicitor can advise you on the timing of your application.

Can I separate from my civil partner without getting a dissolution?

Yes. If you want to separate from your civil partner, but don’t want to dissolve the civil partnership (or it’s been less than a year since it was registered).  However, the agreement reached regarding your finances will not be fully binding and enforceable unless you have a final dissolution order and the agreement has been approved by the court.  You should also be aware that the financial rights and responsibilities between you will continue until the final order is made (see below).

What are my financial rights after ending a civil partnership?

Separating civil partners have the same financial rights as divorcing couples. They have a right to claim maintenance (‘alimony’), lump-sum payments, property transfers or sales and pension sharing or attachment orders.

Dissolve a civil partnership – expert family law solicitors

Ending a relationship is tough, regardless of the circumstances. Whether the breakup was amicable or acrimonious, it pays to have someone on your side.

While there is little room for dispute in the dissolution of the civil partnership itself, agreeing financial arrangements and arrangements for children can be challenging.

At Tees, a dedicated solicitor will explain your rights and the steps you need to take. We’ll support you at every step and protect your interests. We can support you in the background, equipping you to communicate directly with your partner about arrangements for your dissolution, including financial and children matters; or we can take on that communication for you.  Where necessary we can suggest ways to reach agreements on finances and children, such as mediation or arbitration.  If other avenues are not appropriate and it becomes necessary to ask the court to determine what happens, we can advise you through that process, while always keeping in mind opportunities for out of court settlement along the way.

Mediation around dissolving a civil partnership

Mediation is a really effective way for a couple to reach an agreement with the help of an independent mediator.  You can use a mediation process to sort out disagreements and reach decisions about important things like money, property and childcare. Mediation can be a quicker, less stressful and less expensive alternative to court proceedings.  It allows a couple the opportunity to maintain direct communication in a supported environment and helps both partners feel in control of the situation.

An independent, trained mediator will help both parties understand the issues and come to a workable agreement. Tees have specialist mediators on hand to advise you through mediation, and we can ensure a mediated agreement becomes legally binding.

We’re here to help

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EssexBrentwoodChelmsford, and Saffron Walden

HertfordshireBishop's Stortford and Royston

But we can help you wherever you are in England and Wales.

Chat to the Author, Joshua Coombe

Partner, Families and Divorce, Chelmsford office

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