Civil partnership or marriage – which is right for you?

In England and Wales, same-sex and opposite-sex couples can either get married or enter a civil partnership, so there are options for anyone who wishes to formalise their relationship (with or without religious connotations) legally. But how do you know which is right for you?


Conditions are identical for marriages and civil partnerships. Essentially, both parties must be aged 18 or over, not already married or in a civil partnership and not related closely.

Ceremonies and services

Marriages can be solemnised as follows:

  • Same-sex marrying couples say a prescribed form of words. Marriage can be conducted through a civil ceremony or a religious ceremony if a religious organisation has agreed to solemnise marriages of same-sex couples
  • Opposite-sex couples also say prescribed vows, and marriages can be conducted through a civil or religious ceremony

Marriage includes the signing of a marriage certificate.

Civil partnerships for both opposite and same-sex couples are registered by signing a civil partnership document. No words are legally required to be spoken, but partners can choose to include a ceremony if they wish. This can be religious (for same-sex couples only where the organisation has agreed to host them) as long as the formation remains secular.

In the eyes of the law

Same-sex couples have been able to enter a civil partnership since 2005 when new laws were brought in to protect and recognise them. They have also been able to marry since 2014. Opposite-sex couples were restricted to marriage until 2019 when the law was changed to allow them to enter a civil partnership. Civil partners can get married if they wish.

Both marriages and civil partnerships are fundamentally treated the same, with civil partners entitled to the same rights and duties as a lawfully married couple.

The main similarities are:

  • The income and inheritance tax rules cover married couples and civil partners. Despite the name, income tax marriage allowance is also available to civil partners
  • If someone who is married or in a civil partnership dies without making a Will (or has an invalid Will) the rules of intestacy are the same in terms of the deceased’s estate
  • If a civil partnership breaks down, partners are entitled to protection and can make financial claims for children, housing and more as they would if they were married
  • Parents who are in a civil partnership when a child is born get automatic parental responsibility, the same as a married couple
  • Adoption law applies to civil partners and married couples
  • Civil partners largely have the same pension rights as those who are married depending on whether the pension is occupational, private or state

There are minor differences you may need to be aware of:

  • If a couple wishes to end the marriage or civil partnership, a married couple can legally separate with a divorce, whereas a civil partnership is dissolved
  • Married couples are not legally allowed to call themselves civil partners, and civil partners are not legally permitted to call themselves married
  • Civil partnerships are not recognised in all countries, so if a couple wishes to move abroad they should check that country’s laws

Is marriage or a civil partnership right for you?

As detailed above, there are very few legal differences between a marriage and a civil partnership, so the right option for you should be based on your preferences.

If you’re not religious but want to legalise your relationship and enjoy the advantages that married couples do, a civil partnership is the best option. You may also feel uncomfortable with elements of a wedding such as:

  • A bride being ‘given away’
  • Feeling obliged to ask the bride’s father permission to wed
  • Only having the father’s name appearing on the marriage certificate when both the mother and father’s are included on a civil partnership document

If neither marriage nor civil partnership is right, you may wish to continue or begin cohabiting. Contrary to popular belief, there’s no such thing as a common-law marriage. Cohabiting couples aren’t protected like those who are married or in a civil partnership, even if they have been a couple for a long time, have children or jointly own property or businesses.

We strongly recommend drawing up a cohabitation agreement to provide protection should the relationship break down or if one of you dies. Read more about unmarried partners here

About AGR Law

Based in Leicester and Northampton, but also offering virtual appointments, our experienced team can assist with matters relating to family law, including cohabiting and pre-nuptial. You can call us on 0116 340 0094 or email