Heterosexual Couples and Civil Partnerships

Published on 14 Jan 2020

Campaigners for mixed sex couples seeking to enter into civil partnerships as opposed to marriage rejoiced when as of 31 December 2019 they could finally conduct their civil partnerships. The change in law was to address the imbalance between heterosexual and same sex couples, the latter of whom have been able to enter into either a civil partnership or marriage since March 2014 (those in Northern Ireland will be able to marry as from later this month – January 2020).

So what are the similarities and differences between marriages and civil partnerships and why do people continue to choose to legally formalise their relationship rather than simply cohabit?


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:

  • 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.
  • Given adultery is defined as ‘voluntary sexual intercourse between a man and a woman who are not married to each other but one or both of whom is or are married’, this fact cannot be relied upon by same sex couples seeking a divorce or dissolution of their civil partnership (unless the sexual intercourse was with someone of the opposite sex). If a party believes his/her spouse or civil partner has had sexual intercourse with a third party of the same sex, then he or she can use this as an example of unreasonable behaviour.
  • Same sex couples who are in a civil partnership can convert the same into a marriage whereas the same is not true vice versa.

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.

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