How ‘Civil’ is a marriage?

Civil Partnerships

On 27 June 2018 the Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Partnership Act 2004, excluding mixed-sex couples from registering under a Civil Partnership and only allowing same-sex couples to register, is a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.  This ruling came from a claim by Rebecca Seinfield and Charles Keidan that they should be allowed to register their relationship as a Civil Partnership instead of a Marriage.  From interviews in the press, it was the stated aim of the couple to challenge the law as they felt that Marriage was not compatible with their ethos and that a Civil Partnership would more accurately reflect their equal status in their relationship.  They felt that the “legacy of Marriage” which “treated women as property for centuries” was not an option for them.


Regardless of my personal feelings on the matter, this is choice which the couple wanted.  Speaking for myself, I think a Marriage is what you make it and equality between the parties to a marriage is for the couple to make work.  However, this got me thinking, why do we have Civil Partnerships and what is the difference to a Marriage.

The Civil Partnership legislation was introduced in 2004 to allow same-sex couples to legally register their relationship and allow them to benefit from equal treatment in many areas, such as pensions, tax and inheritance.  This is widely seen as a stepping-stone enacted by the then Conservative administration on the route to legislating for same-sex Marriage.  Same-sex Marriage was introduced in the UK from 2014.  However, one noticeable difference from the law surrounding Marriage is that a Civil Partnership dissolution (equivalent to a Marriage divorce) cannot be ended on the grounds of adultery, as the legal definition of adultery requires a relationship with someone of the opposite sex outside of a marriage.

So what will the Government do in reaction to this legal outcome

Reviewing the differences in the legislation led me to conclude that the laws surrounding Marriage do potentially need updating.  One wonders if the Civil Partnership legislation is needed in parallel to the Marriage legislation and which set of legislation might adapt to accommodate the Court ruling?


The modern family

The above also led to a discussion with some of my colleagues around the perceived status of “common law marriage”.  Obviously, under UK law there is no such thing.  If one party to a relationship leaves the family home, or even dies, then the other party has very limited rights.  This is not understood and, particularly important when couples have children.  The ramifications of pension rules, inheritance tax, provisions for dependents, etc. is very unclear in people’s minds.  Many such unmarried couples do not have Wills or Legal Powers of Attorney in existence and such matters are critical in ensuring their wishes are observed if they die.  Did you know that even when married, without a Will the surviving spouse is not necessarily entitled to all the estate of the deceased spouse and a prescribed part might go directly to surviving children.  What if this is a second marriage and the children are not the offspring of the surviving spouse?  It is a minefield.


So, the moral of this story is, there is no substitute for proper legal advice and I am sure that many will benefit.  So speak to your accountant or lawyer today (and preferably both) to ensure you understand where you are (Married, in a Civil Partnership or in neither!)


Blog written by Graham Wallace


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