What Is the Difference Between a Civil Partnership and a Marriage?

The Difference Between Civil Partnership and Marriage

Marriage Defined

Marriage is a union that is both legally binding and sealed by a religious aspect. It has always been available to heterosexual couples. In 1929, the legal age that a person could enter into marriage was set at 16 years of age, and if under 18, approval from a parent or guardian is required to be legally married. You also cannot already be legally married or in a civil partnership, nor can you be closely related to the person you want to marry.

Following the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill, the Ministry of Justice has confirmed that the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022 will come into force on 27 February 2023.

This Act raises the minimum age of marriage and civil partnership to 18 in England and Wales in an effort to protect children from forced marriage. From 27 February 2023, 16 and 17-year-olds will no longer be able to marry or enter a civil partnership under any circumstances, including with parental consent.

The anticipated effect on the common law of the change to the minimum age of marriage means that marriages of children aged under 18 that take place abroad will no longer be legally recognised in England and Wales if either party is domiciled in England and Wales. This will not affect the validity of any marriages or civil partnerships entered before the Act comes into force.

A marriage is formed by ceremonial vows and the signing of a marriage certificate. In 2014, new legislation was passed to allow same-sex couples to enter into marriage in the UK with the exception of Northern Ireland, where same-sex marriage is not allowed. Same-sex couples are free to marry in civil ceremonies but can only be married in a religious ceremony if their religious organisation supports same-sex marriage.

What is the definition of a civil partnership?

A legal partnership is a legal designation that allows a couple in a relationship to have special legal rights and responsibilities as a couple. Civil partnership laws were originally established in 2005 in the UK in order to afford same-sex couples legal rights and advantages previously only given to couples in marriage. In 2019, rights were extended for civil partnerships for heterosexual couples as well. Civil partnerships provide a more modern approach to solidifying relationships to provide both a symbolic and legal bond that benefits both partners. For couples that may have entered into a civil partnership prior to 2014 that now may wish to be married, civil partnerships can be converted to a marriage in the UK. With the legalisation of same-sex marriage, same sex couples who have always wanted the marriage ceremony or tradition of being married may convert their partnership to marriage at their local register office. This can also be done at a religious establishment where same-sex marriages are supported. In Scotland, there is different paperwork to be completed, and Northern Ireland does not allow the conversion of civil partnerships to same-sex marriages.

Similarities and Differences

What are the similarities between marriages and civil partnerships?

There are certain similarities and differences between marriage and civil partnerships. The type of union you choose depends entirely on your situation and your personal preferences as a couple.

Some similarities between marriage and civil partnerships include:

  • Civil partnerships can benefit from the same estate distribution laws, survivors pension benefits and tax benefits as a marriage.
  • Civil partnerships allow the same access to maintenance benefits such as child support or spousal support in the case of dissolution of the union as they would in the case of a marriage.
  • Rights for civil partners to make the same arrangements for children are protected if a union is dissolved in the same way as if a couple is married.
  • Couples in both marriages and civil partnerships maintain the same “next of kin” rights in the case of hospital visits or medical decisions.
  • Those in both civil partnerships and marriages are exempt from inheritance tax.
  • Both marriage and civil partnership cannot be ended prior to one year from the date of the civil partnership or marriage.
  • Both marriage and civil partnership can be ended by divorce or dissolution, annulment and death.

A civil partnership offers many of the legal benefits of marriage while providing a modern way for couples to be recognised.

What are the differences between marriages and civil partnerships?

There are a few distinct differences between marriage and civil partnerships which include:

  • Marriage is performed by vows and can take place in a religious ceremony, where a civil partnership is formed by signing a civil partnership certificate.
  • Civil partners cannot refer to themselves as married for legal reasons.
  • Opposite sex civil partnerships cannot currently be converted into marriage, although same sex civil partnerships can.

Looking at these similarities and differences can be useful when deciding the best type of legal union to enter with your partner if you are unsure of which is best for you.

Ending the Union

Are there differences in ending marriages and civil partnerships?

There are no significant differences between marriage and civil partnerships when it comes to ending the union. Both civil partnerships and marriages can end in divorce, annulment, or death.

The difference however between filing for divorce or a dissolution of the civil partnership on one hand, and an annulment on the other, is that parties can only file for divorce or a dissolution of the civil partnership after one year has elapsed, whereas parties can apply for annulment at any time after the marriage or civil partnership has commenced provided the relevant grounds are available to them.

In order to obtain a divorce or end a civil partnership in the UK, the following requirements must be met:

  • The parties must have been married for over a year
  • The court must have jurisdiction based on the parties’ habitual residence or domicile. There are some differences in the jurisdictional criteria which determine whether same sex or opposite sex parties are able to divorce or end their civil partnership and therefore this aspect should be checked with your solicitor before commencing the dissolution proceedings.
  • There must be a breakdown of the marriage

Under the law prior to April 2022, the breakdown of the marriage had to be evidenced by one of five facts, being adultery, desertion, separation for either 2 or 5 years or unreasonable behaviour. In April 2022, as a result of changes brought in by the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020, a party may now apply in their sole name or jointly for divorce and the parties do not have to be in agreement that there has been a breakdown of the marriage before commencing the dissolution proceedings. If the divorce is filed by one party alone, it is possible for a respondent to challenge the dissolution the proceedings on very limited grounds, but they cannot defend them.

What action is necessary?

If you are unsure how to proceed a family law specialist can answer your questions regarding the next steps and the best way to proceed in your specific situation.

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