Families and divorce

Civil partnerships includes heterosexual couples

Smiling heterosexual couple, civil partnership for heterosexual couples

Heterosexual couples welcomed news in October 2018 that the UK Government would change the law to allow them to enter into civil partnerships, giving them the same formal partnership choices as single-sex couples and, potentially, greater legal security. The law finally changed on New Year’s Eve 2019 and now heterosexual couples can enter into a civil partnership.  

What is a civil partnership?

A civil partnership is a way for couples irrespective of 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 has civil partnership been extended to heterosexual 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.

As well as correcting this imbalance, extending this option will allows a legal union for heterosexual couples who do want to formalise their relationship without getting married. 

Why do heterosexual couples want to enter into a civil partnership, rather than getting married?

There are many reasons why heterosexual couples may prefer a civil partnership to marriage. For example, it could be because of their feelings about the history of marriage. Of course, it’s a very personal decision and every couple is different.

The proposed change in the law will give all couples have the right to choose between civil partnership and marriage, and so choose the option that best aligns with their personal values.

Some unmarried couples believe that during their long-standing relationship they have acquired the same rights as married couples, only to find that this is not the case. For example, 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.

Additionally, 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. 

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 GOV.UK 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.

How do you end a civil partnership?

A civil partnership only ends when one of you dies or by applying to the courts to have the partnership dissolved. Ending a civil partnership involves a lengthy legal process similar to a divorce. This cannot happen until 12 months after registration, and you will need to show that the partnership has broken down because of one of four conditions:

  • your partner has behaved unreasonably
  • you have been separated for two years and it is agreed in writing that the partnership should end
  • one partner has deserted the partnership for at least two years
  • you have been separated for five years

A Dissolution Order will formally end the partnership and the court will issue orders detailing arrangements for children, your home and your finances.

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.

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

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