Marriage and civil partnerships – the legal differences

While marriage and civil partnerships are extremely similar, there are some key legal differences that couples should consider before deciding on how they want to commit to each other.

Civil partnerships

Civil partnerships were initially exclusive to same-sex couples. The Civil Partnership Act 2004 which came into force on 5 December 2005 allowed same-sex couples to enter into a civil partnership.

In December 2019, the Act was updated to allow couples of the opposite sex to enter civil partnerships in England and Wales. Scotland and Northern Ireland would follow suit in 2020.


The Civil Partnership Act allowed couples of the same sex to commit to each other, as it still wasn’t legal for them to get married.

However, the Government brought in the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, and in 2014 this Act came into force, allowing same-sex couples to get married.

With both civil partnerships and marriage now viable options for couples of all orientations, it is a matter of each couple’s personal preferences as to which avenue they decide to pursue.

The legal differences between the two are an important factor for couples to think about when making this decision.

Ceremonial differences

While a marriage is often formalised through a public ceremony where vows are exchanged, a civil partnership is typically constituted by the signing of legal documents, with no legally required ceremony or exchange of vows.

Religious recognition

Marriage is widely recognised by various religious institutions, with many offering wedding ceremonies within their places of worship.

Civil partnerships, on the other hand, lack such religious recognition and cannot include religious readings, music, or symbols during any ceremony that may follow legal registration.


Married couples are officially referred to as ‘husband’, ‘wife’, or ‘spouse’, while in a civil partnership, the individuals are legally known as ‘civil partners’.

The differences in terminology also apply to the dissolution process: ‘divorce’ for marriage and ‘dissolution’ for civil partnership.

Divorce and dissolution

While divorce and dissolution both involve a legal process to end the relationship, there are subtle differences. To end a marriage through divorce, it must be proven that the relationship has irreversibly broken down due to one of five specific grounds:

In contrast, for a civil partnership dissolution, there is no need to provide a reason such as adultery.

However, civil partners must prove that the relationship has broken down beyond repair, usually demonstrating they have lived apart for a continuous period of at least two years.

Financial rights

In terms of financial rights and obligations, marriage and civil partnerships are similar. Both parties in a marriage or civil partnership have a legal duty to support each other financially.

In the event of dissolution or divorce, courts can order the payment of spousal maintenance, division of property, and pension sharing.

Inheritance and tax

Both civil partners and spouses enjoy the same tax benefits, including exemptions from Inheritance Tax (IHT).

If one partner or spouse dies without leaving a Will, the surviving individual is recognised under the law and can inherit their estate.

The decision to enter a marriage or civil partnership is a significant one, involving many personal and legal considerations.

Don’t leave this important decision to chance; make sure you fully understand the implications of your choice.

For assistance to help you navigate this important chapter of your life confidently and securely, please contact our expert team of solicitors today.

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