Civil partnerships: how to get one, differences with marriage and financial consequences


Updated on 10 January 2019

With heterosexual couples now able to choose civil partnerships, Thea Dunne of law firm Vardags explains how they differ from marriage.

When are civil partnerships are expected to be extended?

Heterosexual couples can expect to see civil partnerships extended to them in 2019.

Calls for the extension of civil partnerships began four years ago when London couple Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan. Having had their notice of intention to enter into a civil partnership refused by the registrars at Chelsea Old Town Hall, the couple launched a crowd-funded legal case and petition.

After two appeals their case reached the Supreme Court when in June this year, the country’s top judges agreed, in a much-publicised judgment, that as it stands the Civil Partnership Act 2004 was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

In an announcement in October 2018, Prime Minister Theresa May promised that mixed-sex couples would soon be able to get civil partnerships.

A Bill, sponsored by Tim Loughton MP, cleared Report Stage and Third Reading at the end of the month, along with an amendment setting a deadline for the change at the end of 2019 – providing the Lords agree.

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Civil partnerships vs. marriage

Civil partnerships were introduced in 2004 as a halfway-house option for gay couples before gay marriage was legalised ten years later.

It was supposed to offer an alternative to marriage, but with an identical legal status.

The major difference between the two is that the formation of a civil partnership is secular, and while marriages are solemnised with special spoken words, civil partnerships are registered by signing the civil partnership document.

Civil partnerships are formalised by a document (image: Shutterstock)

There are other slight differences. For example, marriages are recorded in a hard copy register while civil partnerships are electronic. Marriages, but not civil partnerships, can be annulled if at time of marriage one of the partners was suffering from a venereal disease in a communicable form.

Marriages can also be ended by divorce if someone’s spouse committed adultery and they now find it intolerable to live with the unfaithful partner. However, adultery is not one of the five grounds for dissolving a civil partnership, not least because the legal definition of adultery applies exclusively to sex between a man and a woman outside of marriage.

Couples can rest assured that it would be against public policy for a court to discriminate against a couple on the basis that they are married and not civilly-partnered.

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How to get a civil partnership

At its speediest, it will take at least a month from making the decision to formalising a civil partnership.

Firstly, you will have to secure a date and venue. Then you and your partner both have to give notice at your local register office, paying the £35 registry fee.

You will also have to provide your personal details and specify when and where it will take place. To do this you will have to provide proof of name, age and nationality, such as a passport or birth certificate, and proof of address such as a driving licence or utilities bill.

If you have been married or civilly-partnered before, you will need to provide decree absolute or previous partner’s death certificate. If one of you is subject to immigration control, you may have to provide additional documentary evidence. This will all have to be done in person, and local to where you have lived for at least a week.

The registry office will then make the details of your upcoming civil partnership available. This is normal procedure. If after 28 days there are no legal reasons why you can’t go ahead, you are free to register your civil partnership within the next 12 months.

To register your civil partnership, you must have the registrar, at least two witnesses and any venue licensed by the Home Office. Civil ceremonies can include readings, songs or music, but must not include anything that’s religious, including hymns or Bible readings. You do not need to exchange vows for a civil partnership, but you can do so if you wish. The civil partnership will be legally formalised when you and your partner sign the civil partnership document.

You will have to pay a small fee for giving notice, solemnising the marriage and using the Registrar’s office or for the Registrar to attend an approved venue.

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Why not just live together?

The recent ONS statistics showed that the fastest-growing family type in the UK was cohabiting couples. Despite this increasing prevalence, there is still widespread ignorance about the legal status of cohabiting couples and the financial and legal incentives that are missed.

If one cohabitee has left work to look after the home and bring up children, they will face a huge financial disadvantage if the relationship ends. Even if the couple remains together, it may be important for couples to civilly-partner for inheritance, tax, pension and next-of-kin arrangements.

If a relationship breaks down, the court can order a parent to pay child maintenance regardless of their relationship status.  

However, when cohabiting couples break up, however long they have been together, there is no statutory basis for which the court can order financial provision, or re-distribute assets from one partner to another for basic needs. Instead, a cohabitant can only turn to contract, property or trust law for help and pursuing claims in these areas is often complex, uncertain and expensive. In contrast, civil partnerships give couples statutory legal protections and responsibilities to each other.

Civil partnerships have advantages over cohabiting (image: Shutterstock)

Cohabitants also miss out on the means-tested Marriage Allowance, and other tax breaks for married and civilly partnered couples. With a marriage or civil partnership you could transfer your personal allowance, switch assets to the lower-earning partner, transfer assets without being hit with capital gains tax and double up on CGT exemptions.

Should you die without a will, and without getting married or civilly-partnered, your co-habiting partner will not be included amongst the family members who will receive a share of the estate. To have the chance of inheriting anything they would have to bring a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, but this can only be done if the deceased partner died domiciled in England and Wales.

Even if a will has been made in favour of a cohabitant, the spouse exemption from Inheritance Tax will not be available. What’s more, the surviving cohabitant will not be entitled to bereavement support payments, widowed parent’s allowance or bereavement allowance. Most pensions and life insurance policies won’t apply to cohabitants either.

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Access to tax discounts and benefits

If you claim tax credits or benefits and you and your partner decide to live together, get married, or get a civil partnership, you must inform HMRC or the relevant service.

In any of these circumstances you will likely have to apply jointly for tax credits as a couple, instead of as an individual.  These joint claims will take into account both partners’ incomes.

The only circumstances in which you might have a marriage or civil partnership and not have to have a joint claim is if you are separated by a court order or otherwise permanently separated.

You may have to make a joint claim even if you do not have a civil partnership. You can be cohabiting and deemed to be “living together as if you were civil partners”. This can be the case even if you are only living together part of the time.

Don't forget to inform the taxman (image: Shutterstock)

The main difference between living together as if you were civilly-partnered or married and actually being civilly partnered or married, is the legal test used to establish this. The latter are to be treated as a married couple as a starting point, unless the evidence shows they are separated in circumstances likely to be permanent.

Moving in together, getting married or getting a civil partnership will also affect other means tested benefits you receive. If you live in a Universal Credit full service area, you will have to report changes on your online account or helpline. Otherwise, you will have to report changes via the Pension Service helpline, Disability Service Centre, Child Benefit Office, or local council for Housing Benefit as is necessary.

As there is room for confusion here, if your relationship situation changes it is advisable to contact a Government hotline to ensure that you are not inadvertently committing benefits fraud. If not, the financial fallout from an incorrect claim could be severe. The Government will recover payments made on an incorrect claim and may charge penalties.

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Divorce for civil partnerships

If the process of getting civilly-partnered or married is similar, then divorcing or dissolving a civil partnership is virtually identical.

The only procedural difference is that some of the court orders have different names. A decree nisi in divorce proceedings for example, is called a conditional order in proceedings to end a civil partnership.

The couple must have been married or partnered for a year prior to bringing separation proceedings and England and Wales must be the appropriate jurisdiction. They must prove that the relationship has irretrievably broken down.

Unless they have been separated for at least two years they must do this by alleging the fault of the other party and proving that there has been unreasonable behaviour. While heterosexual married couples can prove adultery instead of unreasonable behaviour, this is not an option for same-sex married couples or civil partners. Nor can civil partners cite communicable venereal disease to nullify a marriage.

Otherwise ending the relationship, along with any associated children and financial arrangements are no different.

Thea Dunne is an in-house journalist at law firm Vardags, which specialises in family law. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of loveMONEY.

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