Civil partnerships

Civil partnerships

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

You may recall that before same sex marriage became legal in the UK, civil partnerships were introduced in 2004 by the then Labour government under the Civil Partnership Act. 

The Act applied to same-sex couples over the age of 16 and it enabled them to be legally recognised as being in a relationship.  It was a welcome development for same-sex couples who previously could not benefit from any of the rights that are awarded to opposite sex couples on marriage and at that time could also not get married.

Couples in either a civil partnership or civil marriage benefit from the same rights as married couples, including tax benefits, pensions and inheritance but, unlike traditional marriage ceremonies, there is no requirement for a religious ceremony to take place, making them a desirable option for those who want to legally recognise their relationship but don’t align themselves with a particular religion.  

The criteria for forming a civil partnership are that you are both 16 or over (you need permission from your parents or guardians if you’re under 18 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland), you are both either single, divorced or widowed and are not closely related.

Until the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 the institutions of marriage and civil partnerships coexisted with one another.  The Marriage Act 2013 then created an unusual situation where same-sex couples had the choice of marriage or civil partnership, but heterosexual couples could only get married.

As only same sex couples could enter into a civil partnership this left cohabiting or ‘common law’ couples of the opposite sex who didn’t want to get married at a disadvantage.  ‘Common law’ husband or wife is terminology often used to refer to couples who cohabit but are not married.  However, an unmarried couple can never be ‘common law’ married because common law marriage no longer exists in UK law.  Despite popular belief, co-habiting couples after a certain period do not have the same legal rights as married couples or civil partners but retain the same rights as single people.

Cohabiting is now the fastest growing family unit, with or without kids, as couples live together before deciding to take the next step – or not.

One advantage that a cohabiting couple cannot benefit from is the ability to pass one person’s share of the property they may own together to the other without suffering inheritance tax. i.e. the spousal exemption extended for civil partnerships is not available to couples of the opposite sex who are currently living together but are not married.

Other benefits not available include passing assets to each other without being subject to capital gains tax, some pension scheme dependent benefits and the ability to benefit from the marriage allowance –

Couples co-habiting have no legally binding or recognised relationship status therefore they forgo these and other benefits.

However, the law is due to change by the end of this year to allow heterosexual couples in England and Wales the right to form civil partnerships.  This will level the playing field so now it doesn’t matter whether you are in a same sex or opposite sex relationship, you have the same choices.  You can get married, form a civil partnership or just co-habit. 

It is important to note that the new law does not automatically offer protection for co-habiting couples who choose not to get married or form a civil partnership and, as now, they will have little or no financial or legal protection.

Ultimately, what a couple decides to do is up to them and depends on their relationship.  Whether they can obtain any benefits from either approach to formalising, or not, their relationship is probably not going to be the deciding factor!  However, the changes in the law since 2004 are welcome as they increase the choices for all couples.   

If you would like detailed advice on the merits and laws applying to each option, I suggest that you seek legal advice.