Civil partnership: a guide

What is a civil partnership?

A civil partnership is a way for couples, irrespective of their sex, to formalise their relationship, without getting married. Civil partners have the same rights as married couples. A civil partnership gives the relationship legal recognition and a range of legal rights in matters such as:

  • parental responsibility
  • child maintenance
  • 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.

When was civil partnership introduced?

Civil partnership was introduced in the UK in 2004 specifically for single-sex couples who, at the time, were unable to marry. It gave them rights such as legal and financial protection, similar to the rights a marriage would have offered. The Civil Partnership (Opposite-sex Couples) Regulations 2019 extends civil partnership to all couples, regardless of sex.

Why was civil partnership extended to heterosexual couples?

The law changed on New Year’s Eve 2019 to enable heterosexual couples to enter into a civil partnership so they can formalise their relationship without getting married. This gives them the same formal partnership choices as single-sex couples.

In 2013 the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act legalised same-sex marriage in England and Wales. The new law gave same sex couples in those countries a choice between a marriage or a civil partnership. This created an imbalance in the law, as opposite-sex couples only had the option of marriage. The Supreme Court found that the Civil Partnership Act of 2004 was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, hence the decision to extend the option to opposite-sex couples.

Consummation and civil partnership

Consummation is currently a prerequisite for a valid marriage in England and Wales. Therefore, if a marriage is not consummated, it can be annulled. Civil partnership steers away from this and 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.

Common law married

Some unmarried couples believe that during their long-standing relationship they have acquired the same rights as married couples – they believe themselves to be ‘common law married’.  This is not a legal status that exists – there is no such thing as common law married. For example, without being either married or in a civil partnership, if one partner dies, the other has no automatic right to inherit the other’s estate, nor will they necessarily benefit from the other’s pension schemes. They will not be eligible for inheritance tax exemption or the marriage income tax allowance. Additionally, if the relationship breaks down, the usual laws which apply around divorce (such as the right to ownership of each other’s property) cannot be applied.

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 need only sign a civil partnership document, while a marriage requires the exchange of words 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.

A civil partnership is ended by a Dissolution Order, but a marriage is ended by a Decree Absolute divorce; both are lengthy procedures.

Further, as above, civil partnership has slightly different factors to marriage in terms of validity and dissolution.

How do I apply for a civil partnership in the UK?

The first step is for you and your partner to give notice of your intention to register a civil partnership. You will need to do this in person at a register office local to your home address, at which you must have lived for at least seven days. You will still be able to actually register the partnership somewhere else if you wish, but you will need to give details of where and when this will be at the time of giving notice.

You will be asked to provide your names, addresses, ages, nationalities and whether you have been in a civil partnership or married before. You will need to provide ID (such as your passports or birth certificates). If you have been in a formal partnership before, you will need to provide the Decree Absolute from your divorce or the Dissolution Order.

These details will then be made available for anyone to see for 28 days in order for any objections to be raised. If there are no objections, you will be able to register your partnership – this must be done within the next 12 months. The 28-day waiting period can be waived in exceptional circumstances if, for example, one of you is seriously ill.

You will need to pay a fee when you give notice, plus a registration fee.

Registering a civil partnership

You can find a list of venues approved to register civil partnerships on the website, and you can register your civil partnership at any one of them. There is no legal requirement to include a ceremony with the registration, although you may be able to if you wish as some of the approved premises have this option.

You will need two witnesses with you at the registration, where you and your partner will sign the civil partnership schedule in front of a registrar. You will receive a civil partnership certificate, for which there is also a fee.

Converting a civil partnership into a marriage

At the moment, you can only convert a same-sex civil partnership to marriage. There is a standard conversion process for this. Make an appointment at a register office, at which both you and your partner will need to be present. You will be asked to provide evidence of your names, dates of birth, current passports or birth certificates, your civil partnership certificate and evidence of your address. You will both have to sign a legal declaration stating that you agree to convert your civil partnership to a marriage and become your partner’s lawful husband or wife. Your marriage will be registered and you will be given a marriage certificate.

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 and agree with your partner 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 on the same page. However, if you disagree over practical issues (childcare, finances and property) then the process can be longer and more complex. It may take longer to end the partnership if you disagree about how to handle these issues.

When can I apply to end a civil partnership?

Your civil partnership must have lasted for at least a year before you can apply to dissolve 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 permanent 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. Before 6 April 2022 a person seeking dissolution had to prove that the partnership had broken down by citing reasons (known as "facts") of unreasonable behaviour, adultery, two  years' separation (with agreement of the partner), five years' separation or desertion. However this no longer necessary.  Under the new ‘no fault’ legislation, you now only have to confirm that the partnership has broken down irretrievably.

To start the dissolution proceedings, you will need to complete an application form which can be filed at court electronically.  This application 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 an image 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. (There are now limited grounds upon which your partner can dispute the application but it is technically possible to do so).

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 dissolution order.  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 after the conditional order is made, an application can be made for the final dissolution order which ends the civil partnership.  In the case of a sole application, the applicant must give the other party ('the respondent') 14 days' notice of their intention to apply.

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 the original application was made; 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 may be delays in the court processing the applications.  This is beyond the control of the parties or any solicitors involved.

Importantly, it is often sensible to wait until after final financial agreement has been made (and approved by the court) before dissolving the civil partnership, because of financial rights that might be lost on dissolution. And it is in some cases reaching a financial agreement (or an agreement in relation to children of the partnership) which can take 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.

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).  Any 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.

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, lump-sum payments, property transfer or sale 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 difficult, it pays to have someone on your side.

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. If you need us to, we can guide you through the process of dealing with your former partner.

Mediation to dissolve a civil partnership

You can use a mediation process to sort out disagreements and reach decisions about important things like money, property and childcare. Mediation is normally a faster and less stressful alternative to a drawn-out court process. It can be a cheaper option 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 has specialist mediators on hand to advise you through a mediation, and we can ensure a mediated agreement becomes legally binding.

We’re here to help

Our family and divorce lawyers are based in:

Cambridgeshire: Cambridge

Essex: Brentwood, Chelmsford, and Saffron Walden

Hertfordshire: Bishop's Stortford and Royston

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

Chat to the Author, Helen Midgley

Senior Associate - Families and Divorce, Bishop's Stortford office

Meet Helen
Helen Midgley, family law specialist in Bishops Stortford
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