Lauren Guy is an Associate Solicitor at Family Law PartnersBoth opposite and same-sex couples now have the choice of getting married or entering into a civil partnership.

Outside of the religious community, some sections of the general public are starting to view marriage and civil partnerships as one and the same, the same commitment just with a different title.  Often, a civil partner will be referred to as a person’s ‘husband’ or ‘wife’.

As family lawyers we are often asked, what is the difference between marriage and civil partnership? Here we look at the key differences and what each means from a legal perspective.

The two regimes are entirely separate and have their roots in different statutes.

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.

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.

Eligibility for marriage and civil partnership is the same

A couple may enter into a marriage or civil partnership if they are:

  • Over 18 (or over 16 with parents’ permission)
  • Not already married or in a civil partnership
  • Not related within a prohibited degree of relationship

The way the unions are formed are different

Marriages are solemnised by the saying of a prescribed form of words, whereas civil partnerships are registered by signing a civil partnership document (you can enter a civil partnership with no ceremony and without saying anything!).

Civil partnerships cannot be religious

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

For same-sex marriages it is worth noting that the religious organisation in question must have agreed to solemnise marriages of same-sex couples according to its rites, and few of the major religious organisation in the UK have done so.

The formation of a civil partnership is always an exclusively civil event.  There may be a ceremony around the registering of a civil partnership, and this will sometimes include a religious element, but the civil partnership is formed when signing the civil partnership document and this must remain secular.

The administrative process is similar

Notice must be given of an intention to marry or enter into a civil partnership no less than 29 days in advance.

Marriages are registered on paper, in a hard copy of the register, but civil partnerships are recorded in an electronic register.

The details of both parents, not just father’s, are included on the civil partnership certificate

A marriage certificate includes the name of the father (or step-father) of the parties.

The civil partnership certificate includes the name of both parents (or step-parent) of the parties.

Divorce versus dissolution

A marriage, whether opposite or same-sex, can be ended by divorce on the ground that the marriage has broken down irretrievably and relying on one of the following:

  1. The respondent has committed adultery and the petitioner finds it intolerable to live with he respondent (the definition of adultery is sexual intercourse with someone of the opposite sex outside the marriage).
  2. The respondent has behaved in such a way that the petitioner cannot reasonably be expected to live with them.
  3. Desertion for 2 years.
  4. Separation for 2 years and the respondent consents to the divorce.
  5. Separation for 5 years.

A civil partnership can be ended by dissolution on the ground that the civil partnership has broken down irretrievably and relying the facts 2-4 above that apply to divorce.

A key difference is that adultery cannot be relied on to dissolve a civil partnership.

The same principles apply to financial claims upon divorce or dissolution, although they are derived from different statutes (for marriage, The Matrimonial Causes Act 1972 and for civil partnerships The Civil Partnership Act 2004).

Recognition overseas varies

An opposite sex marriage formed in England And Wales is recognised internationally.

A same-sex marriage formed in England and Wales will only be recognised in countries that recognise same-sex marriage.

Civil partnerships, whether same-sex or opposite sex, are recognised in many countries but recognition is not as universal as the recognition in place for marriage.

If you are entering a same-sex marriage or an opposite sex or same-sex civil partnership, it is important to check whether your union will be recognised if you intend to live abroad in the future.

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