Civil partnerships – a marriage by another name?

Statistics show that the number of same sex civil partnerships is falling (most likely because many same sex couples are now choosing to get married), but will this trend change when heterosexual couples are offered the ability to enter into a civil partnership? What are the similarities and differences between civil partnerships and marriages?


The major and most important similarity is that both provide legal recognition to a relationship between two people. In turn, both marriage and civil partnerships offer many of the same legal rights in respect of various areas of law including, financial remedy claims against one another in the event the parties’ relationship breaks down, parental responsibility, inheritance tax and intestacy rights.

Both heterosexual and same sex couples may enter into a marriage in England, Wales and Scotland.


The differences between the two are not significant, but here are the main points:

  • Currently only same sex couples can enter into a civil partnership, but this may well change in the near future given the Supreme Court’s decision that it was against the human rights of heterosexual couples to be prevented from entering into civil partnerships;
  • Civil partners cannot refer themselves as ‘married’ and married couples cannot refer to themselves as ‘civil partners’;
  • Civil partnerships are registered by the couple signing the civil partnership document as opposed to marriages where the couple exchange vows;
  • Both parents of the couple are named on the civil partnership certificate whereas only fathers of the couple are named on the marriage certificate;
  • In the event the couple’s relationship breaks down and they seek legal recognition of the same, the legal terminology for the two differ with a decree absolute / divorce being sought in respect of a married couple and a dissolution order being sought in respect of a civil partnership couple;
  • Some countries do not recognise civil partnerships;
  • Some associate marriage with patriarchy and a marriage can have religious connotations, whereas civil partnerships do not;
  • Those seeking the dissolution of a civil partnership cannot cite adultery as the reason for the same.
  • Those in a civil partnership can convert the same into a marriage whereas the same is not true vice versa.

What are the differences in respect of marriage entered into by a same sex couple as opposed to heterosexual couple?

Very little is the answer! The main two being:

  • A same sex couple cannot seek an annulment based on non-consummation; and
  • A same sex couple cannot petition for divorce based on adultery given the current legal definition of adultery being sexual relations between a man and a woman, one of whom is not party to the marriage.

What if couples cohabit as opposed to marry or enter into a civil partnership?

Common law husbands and wives acquiring rights through their cohabitation is a myth. Couples can formalise their financial arrangements by entering into a cohabitation agreement, but this does not offer the same rights and responsibilities as married couples or civil partners.