Is there a difference between a marriage and a civil partnership? - Family Law Partners

Is there a difference between a marriage and a civil partnership?

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What is a marriage?

The provision for marriage is set out it the Marriage Act 1949, with same sex marriage introduced in the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013.

Marriages are formalised by the saying of a prescribed form of words/vows and the signing of a marriage certificate.

Both same-sex or opposite sex marriage ceremonies can be civil or religious.

What is a Civil Partnership?

The provision for civil partnership is set out in the Civil Partnership Act 2004, with opposite sex civil partnership introduced in the Civil Partnership (Opposite Sex Couples) Regulations 2019.

A civil partnership is a relationship between two unrelated people which is legally recognised.  It can be between a same sex or opposite sex couple.  A registered civil partnership provides the couple with certain legal rights and responsibilities.

Civil partnerships are entered into by the signing of a Civil Partnership Certificate and unlike a marriage no vow or words are required to be spoken.

The formation of a civil partnership is always an exclusively civil event as opposed to a marriage which can be a civil or religious ceremony.

How can a marriage and civil partnership be ended?

A marriage can only be ended by divorce or death. Similarly, civil partnerships can only be ended by dissolution or death.  In both cases a divorce or dissolution can only be applied for if the marriage or civil partnership has lasted for at least one year.

Following the passing of the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill ‘no fault’ divorce was introduced.  At the same time the historic terminology used in divorces was also changed. The terms ‘Decree Nisi’  and ‘Decree Absolute’ used in divorce proceedings were abolished and the terms ‘Conditional Order’ and ‘Final Order’ (which were already used in civil partnership dissolution) are now used for both civil partnership dissolution and divorce proceedings.

You can read more about the divorce and dissolution process from our factsheets:-

How will the financial issues be dealt with on divorce and dissolution?

A civil partnership dissolution has the same effect as a divorce and the financial rights and obligations that arise are the same for a civil partnership and a marriage.  For example either party can apply to the family court (on divorce or dissolution) for the following:-

  • an order for a sale or a transfer of a property to one person (or to a child)
  • an order that a lump sum of money (which can be in one go or in instalments) or a series of lump sums is paid over a period of time
  • an order that one party pay maintenance to the other either for the rest of their joint lives or until the recipient remarries or enters into a subsequent civil partnership, or for a fixed period
  • an order for money for educational expenses etc for a child
  • an order for child maintenance in the event that the payer is a high earner which takes them above the Child Maintenance Service’s income cap
  • an order that a pension be shared or ‘attached’.

Our factsheet provides more information about this:

How are children born to married or civil partnered parents treated?

Where a child is born whilst its parents are married or in a civil partnership, both parents will have parental responsibility. Parental Responsibility is described as ‘all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of a chid has in relation to the child and his property’.  These responsibilities, duties and power include such things as which school a child attends, which medical treatment a child receives and which religion the child may be raised in.

Importantly, if the parents are not married or in a civil partnership at the time of the child’s birth, it is only the mother that will have automatic parental responsibility. The father would need to be registered on the birth certificate to provide him with parental responsibility.  If he is not registered on the birth certificate he can enter a parental responsibility agreement with the mother or he could apply for parental responsibility through the family court.

What happens to the children in the event of a divorce or dissolution?

Following a couple’s separation, they are encouraged to work together to agree, between themselves, the care arrangements for their children.  Involving the family court is discouraged and indeed there is a ‘no order’ principle that applies to child arrangements which means the court will not make an order unless it is in the interests of the child to do so.  However, there are occasions where parents cannot reach an agreement and as such they are entitled to apply to the court for various orders.

Should a court application be necessary it makes no difference whether the child’s parents are or were married or in a civil partnership.  The only requirement is that the parent making the application has parental responsibility and, if they don’t, they can ask for permission from the court to make their application.

Are marriages and civil partnerships formed in England and Wales recognised overseas?

An opposite sex marriage formed in England and Wales will usually be recognised internationally.

Same sex marriages and civil partnerships formed in England and Wales are recognised in many countries but advice should always be sought in relation to what rights the couple may have under the law of another country.

What happens if one party to a marriage or civil partnership dies?

Married couples and civil partners are treated the same in the event one party dies. Married couples and civil partners inherit under the rules of intestacy (which apply is the deceased person does not have a Will) only if they are actually married or in a civil partnership at the time of death.  If the couple are already divorced or their civil partnership has been dissolved neither party can inherit under the rules of intestacy.

There are also potential claims under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975.

Director Lisa Burton-Durham is a specialist divorce and collaborative lawyer and head of our Brighton team.

For more information about marriage, divorce or a civil partnership, or to arrange a confidential discussion about your personal circumstances, please do not hesitate to contact us.


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