Civil partnership

Reviewed by Julian Hawkhead, senior partner, Stowe Family Law

One woman placing the ring on another woman's finger to unite their civil partnership

A civil partnership gives couples very similar rights and responsibilities to marriage, and can be registered or dissolved in much the same way. It is available to both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. It is regarded as an alternative to marriage.

Registering a UK civil partnership

You can register your civil partnership at a register office or at any venue that has been approved for registering marriages and civil partnerships.

Before registering, you must each give at least 15 days' notice at your local register office, including details of where you intend to register the civil partnership.

The process of registering the partnership is a brief civil ceremony, conducted by a registrar. You each sign the civil partnership schedule, with two witnesses.

If you wish to use an alternative form of wording, you should discuss this in advance with the registrar who may be willing to accommodate your wishes. You cannot hold any form of religious service at the same time as the civil registration, but you are free to hold the ceremony or celebration of your choice separately from the registration process.

Once your UK civil partnership has been registered, you receive a civil partnership certificate. Versions of the certificate are available either with or without the addresses you were living at when you registered the partnership. You can use the certificate as evidence of the partnership, perhaps to inform your employer.

A small fee (currently £35 each) is payable for giving notice. The registrar charges a further fee (around £50) for the registration itself. There may be additional expenses if the civil partnership ceremony takes place at a venue other than the register office.

If you have registered a civil partnership overseas, it may be recognised in the UK automatically, depending on where the partnership was registered. Registering a UK civil partnership gives a non-UK citizen immigration rights, but involves a more complex process. If international considerations apply, you should take legal advice.

Financial rules for civil partners

A key advantage of registering a civil partnership is it provides a higher degree of financial security for each party (particularly the more financially vulnerable party) than if they only live together in a relationship.

If the relationship breaks down, either partner may be able to make a financial claim in the same way as when a married couple divorces – with the provision of property, or money, or pensions, or ongoing maintenance support.

Civil partners are treated in the same way as married couples for taxation purposes. This can have a major advantage in terms of inheritance tax (IHT), because assets passed to your partner are not taxed.

If a partnership has not been registered, the surviving partner may face significant financial difficulties, such as having to sell the family home to pay the IHT bill.

Civil partners are also treated as married couples in terms of capital gains tax (CGT), allowing them to pass assets to each other without any CGT liability. However, if you both own a home you will no longer each be able to claim CGT exemption for your own home; one home will have to be nominated as your main residence. Gains on the other may be taxable.

Registered civil partners are treated in the same way as married couples for most state benefits and employment benefits:

  • If you claim state benefits (eg income support), your entitlement is assessed on the basis of your joint finances (although this applies whether your partnership is registered or if you simply live together).
  • In terms of state pensions, each of you has similar rights to a married husband or widower.
  • If you are in a public sector pension scheme, you have the same entitlements as a married couple.
  • If you are in a private sector pension scheme, you have the same entitlements to employment benefits as a married couple. However, there may be a reduced entitlement to widower's pension, particularly if your employer offers a 'contracted-in' pension scheme.

Registering a UK civil partnership is a good opportunity to review your financial planning generally, including pension arrangements, life insurance and so on.

In addition, registering the partnership automatically revokes any existing wills. Each partner will have an automatic right to inherit at least part of the other's estate on death, but this may not provide the outcome you would want - so you should each prepare a new will.

Civil partnership and children

If you are in a same-sex relationship and have a child, you and your partner can apply to jointly adopt the child. This normally requires the consent of the child's other natural parent.

Alternatively, your partner can apply for parental responsibility. This gives your partner a legal role in the child's upbringing, together with you and the child's other natural parent.

A same-sex couple can also apply to adopt a child who is not related to either partner. When the adoption agency assesses suitability, your civil partnership provides evidence of the stability of your relationship in the same way as marriage. Under the Equality Act 2010, adoption agencies must not discriminate against you on the grounds of your sexual orientation.

Ending a civil partnership

A registered civil partnership remains in force until it is dissolved (or in rare cases annulled) by the court. If you separate without dissolving the partnership, neither of you can enter a new registered partnership (or get married).

You cannot apply for dissolution of the partnership within a year of its registration.

You apply to the court for a dissolution order. Since 6 April 2022 dissolution has been on a ‘no fault’ basis, meaning that you do not have to give a reason to end your civil partnership.

You will need to sort out financial arrangements and the arrangements for any children. It is usually best if these can be negotiated between you and then formalised by asking the court for a consent order.

The processes involved in dissolving a civil partnership and the issues to be considered are very similar to those involved in bringing a marriage to an end with a divorce.

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