Civil Partnership v Marriage – the differences explained

civil partnership

The issue of civil partnership is a hot topic of debate at the moment following on from the supreme courts decision that it is against the human rights of heterosexual couples to be prevented from entering into a civil partnership.

Introduced into the UK in 2004, there have been many changes since the Civil Partnership Act 2004 came into force. Nine years later, legislation to allow same-sex marriages was passed. There is often confusion about the differences between marriage and civil partnership but from a legal perspective, the two unions are very similar.

Essentially, the fundamental difference is that only same-sex couples can enter into a civil partnership but this could potentially change in the future depending on the outcome of court proceedings and the Private Members Bill.

What is a civil partnership?

A civil partnership is a legal relationship which can only be registered by two people of the same sex. It gives legal recognition and added rights as well as responsibilities. Basically, civil partners have the same legal rights as married couples in many areas of the law including parental responsibility, child maintenance, inheritance tax, social security, tenancy rights, full life insurance recognition and next of kin rights.

From 2014, couples who registered a civil partnership in England and Wales have been able to change this to a marriage through a simple administrative process called a ‘standard’ conversion or a two-stage process whereby the conversion may be followed by a ceremony. There is a £4 fee for a marriage certificate and couples need to be able to present the original partnership certificate and provide the necessary ID.

In England, Wales and Scotland, both opposite and same-sex couples can marry in a civil or religious marriage ceremony.


We mentioned earlier that in most matters and from a legal standpoint, the rights are the same. However, there are subtle contrasts in some areas.

Ending the relationship

A civil partnership is ended by a Dissolution Order whereas a marriage is ended by a Decree Absolute of divorce.

The Ceremony

Civil partnerships are registered by signing the civil partnerships document and there is not a requirement for a ceremony to take place or to exchange vows. Marriages are established by the exchange of words and in the form of a religious or civil ceremony.


Civil partnership certificates include the names of both parents of the parties whereas marriage certificates only include the fathers’ names. The Private Members Bill we mentioned earlier is calling for mothers’ names to be included too.


Some countries recognise civil partnerships whilst others do not so when it comes to travelling or decisions to move abroad, this could cause issues. Marriage is recognised as a legally binding institution throughout the world.

The future of civil partnerships

With the introduction of same sex marriages in England and Wales in 2014, the number of civil partnerships fell. According to House of Commons library research, in 2015  there were just over a thousand civil partnerships formed. In contrast, there were 7,366 marriages between same-sex couples in England and Wales between 29 March 2014 and 30 June 2015.

Some couples prefer the idea of a civil partnership for a variety of reasons; it gives them legal and financial protection; they may object to marriage as an institution and its associations with property and patriarchy; it’s free of the religious connotations of marriage; they see it as a more modern way of formalising their relationship.

One opposite-sex couple who want to form a civil partnership instead of marriage have recently been granted the right to take their case to the Supreme Court. Charles Keidan and Rebecca Steinfeld are challenging the Civil Partnership Act 2004 arguing the Government’s position is ‘incompatible with the equality of law’. Their case will be heard by the Supreme Court, the highest Court in the UK, in May.


Andrew Meehan is individually recommended for family law by both Chambers UK and the Legal 500. He is also a Resolution accredited specialist solicitor for divorce cases involving complex financial and property matters.


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