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Q: What is the difference between marriage and civil partnerships?

A: There is very little difference in legal terms between marriage and civil partnerships, with both conferring the same rights on things like tax, inheritance and pension provision.

But, the history, expectations, and cultural baggage of the two institutions is very different. Many couples can make a marriage work, but for some people – especially women – marriage is seen as carrying far too much patriarchal baggage: the idea that the man would own his wife, given away to him by the father of the bride. Still today marriage certificates only have space for the names of the fathers of the bride and groom, whereas civil partnerships include the name of both parents. And in the ceremony partners have to say the words “I take you to be my wife…I take you to be my husband.”

Of course these trappings could be taken away but doing so would not erase the history of marriage and the baggage it carries. That history makes many couples feel uncomfortable at the idea of entering a marriage but we believe that choice should not mean they are denied legal and financial protection.


Parental rights:

Cohabiting: Unmarried mother automatically has parental responsibility for the child unless the father jointly registers the birth of the child with the mother (for births after December 2003), they arrange a “parental responsibility agreement” with the mother, or they get a “parental responsibility order” from a court.

Married: Both mother and father automatically have parental responsibility for the child. In the event of divorce, either person can also be ordered to pay maintenance to their former spouse if they were financially dependent on them.

Civil partners: Same-sex civil partners do not automatically have parental responsibility for their partner’s children but they can apply for it through the courts. If you are in a civil partnership with the mother at the time of birth, or where you have an agreement with the child’s mother, you can apply for parental responsibility.


Cohabiting: no right for couples to claim pension provisions on seperation; and no right to claim state pension on death.

Married: on divorce spouses are automatically entitled to equal benefits from occupational pension schemes and on death former spouses may be able to claim a state retirement pension based on their partner’s national insurance contribution.

Civil partners: Same as for married couples.

Inheritance tax: 

Cohabiting: Couples will have to pay any inheritance tax when a property passes between couples when one partner dies and decrees in their Will that property should pass to their partner.

Married: Married couples are exempt from inheritance tax when properties pass to their spouse whilst on divorce the divorce settlement will outline how property is to be transferred but generally in transfers between spouses it will be exempt from inheritance tax.

Civil partners: Same as for married couples.

Grounds for divorce or dissolution:

Cohabiting: N/A

Married: A marriage can be ended by divorce if it can be proved that the relationship has broken down irreparably evidenced by one of the following: adultery; unreasonable behaviour; desertion for two years; separation for two years (with respondent’s consent); separation for five years (no consent required).

Civil partners: Rules for a dissolution of a civil partnership are the same as those for marriage except adultery cannot be used as evidence.

Image: London Overground by August Brill on Flickr[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]