Civil Marriage OR Civil Partnership? - Somerset Registration Services

Marriages & Partnerships

Your guide to getting married or forming a civil partnership in Somerset & North Somerset.

Marriage or Partnership – What’s the difference?

You know you want to make a commitment, but what are the options? The majority of ceremonies we conduct are marriages, but partnerships are available to all couples now. Before you book a ceremony you should take a moment to make sure you’re choosing the union that’s right for you. The following information applies to England and Wales. Legislation for Scotland and Northern Ireland can vary. Check local guidance if you live or intend to have your ceremony in either region.

Why choose a civil partnership instead of a marriage?

Marriage is an ancient tradition in various forms around the world. In the UK it has been linked to the church for centuries and this was the only way of officially recording unions. It’s been possible to have a civil marriage since 1837 and all legal unions are now recorded by the Register Office. However, some couples feel uncomfortable entering into a marriage but still want the security of legal recognition. This is often because of historical and cultural associations of marriage with inequality, patriarchy and institutional religion. It may be that “being married” just doesn’t feel right. Civil partnership offers an alternative form of legally recognising a relationship free from any of those associations. We can’t advise you on which to choose – it really is a personal decision.

What are the similarities between a marriage and a partnership?

Broadly speaking, both types of union have the same legal rights and responsibilities. This includes things like pension, tenancy, property and next of kin rights, death benefits and tax allowances. Both marriage and partnership in England and Wales give similar parental responsibilities, such as the ability to become a legal step parent. Legally speaking, there is very little difference at all in the UK.

Both types of union are available for a small statutory fee in a ceremony with just 2 witnesses. Both are available as a full ceremony at a register office or approved venue.

Same and opposite sex couples may both choose between a marriage and a partnership in the UK.

Marriage v Partnership: The Differences

So what are the differences? There is a handy PDF on the website that lists everything side by side, so you can see it’s mainly technical wording that makes the difference. (Please note that at time of publishing this page the PDF had not been updated to show that both marriages and partnerships are recorded on an electronic register. The names of both mothers and fathers can now be included on certificates in both cases.) Here are a few areas where things don’t match up:

  • You form a marriage by speaking vows out loud. You form a partnership by signing a schedule document and the spoken vows are optional
  • After forming a civil partnership, couples are known as “partner” rather than “husband/wife”. They may not refer to themselves as married for legal purposes.
  • Marriages end in divorce, whereas partnerships end in a dissolution
  • Adultery and venereal disease are grounds for divorce, but not for dissolving a partnership
  • (Opposite sex) marriage is recognised around the world, but civil partnerships (same or opposite sex) are not recognised in all countries. (n.b. Same sex marriage is not recognised or is illegal in some countries altogether.)

A quick history of civil partnerships

Civil partnerships were originally introduced in December 2005 as a way for same sex couples to legally recognise their relationship. This type of union was made available to both same sex and opposite sex couples from December 31st 2019 following a high profile legal challenge by opposite sex couples wanting an alternative to marriage.

Over 16,000 couples formed a partnership in 2006 settling to an average of 6300 over the next few years. When the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 was introduced, the number of civil partnerships declined as many couples chose to marry instead. Just 908 couples chose to form a partnership in England and Wales in 2017. However, once partnerships were available to all the numbers rose again and over 6700 couples chose to form partnerships in England & Wales in 2021, with over 80% between opposite sex couples. It’s still a very small percentage of overall ceremonies. To put this in perspective, there were around 220,000 weddings in 2019 (the last pre pandemic year for wedding figures).

Confused About Civil Unions?

It’s not uncommon for couples to be confused by the terminology. Both ceremonies offered by the registration service are civil – a civil marriage and a civil partnership. The “civil” part means it’s not a religious ceremony but one conducted by local government staff. We almost always refer to our marriages as just marriages. We more normally say civil partnerships or CPs, but may refer to just partnerships. If you ask to book a civil ceremony, we will ask you which one as that applies to both options!

To add a little extra confusion, we do send registrars to ceremonies at religious venues who are registered to conduct ceremonies. The Church of England or Wales have the facility to do all the preliminary legal work and ceremony paperwork. Other faith organisations will need couples to give notice with us and have us there to carry out the paperwork while they conduct the ceremony themselves. It is possible to have a civil partnership at these religious venues but it is down to those institutions as to what they will offer.

Civil Partnerships Outside The UK

Beyond the UK, things can be quite different. Many countries recognise civil partnership as a legal union and have something similar themselves (e.g. Spain, Australia, Canada). Some countries used to have civil partnerships but no longer offer this now they have equal marriage rights (e.g. Denmark, Germany). There are countries that recognise same sex partnerships but not marriage (e.g. Cyprus & Greece). Some countries don’t have legal partnerships for same sex couples but have “de facto” status if they have been living together that offer some benefits (e.g. India). Some countries do not recognise civil partnerships at all and will not confer any legal benefits that would come with marriage (e.g. Poland, Turkey & Russia).

If you are planning to travel or work abroad you should check the situation in your destination. This could be an issue where unmarried couples are not allowed to cohabit, for example. Another issue that is worth bearing in mind (and we hope you don’t need it) is that countries with no civil partnership legislation may also be unable to carry out partnership dissolutions, should you need to separate.

Essentially, marriage for opposite sex couples is universally recognised. Marriage for same sex couples is recognised in some countries. Civil partnerships are relatively new and were often introduced for opposite sex couples so the legislation varies much more from country to country and is constantly evolving. Research is vital if you think this may impact you.

Converting A Partnership To A Marriage

While it’s still possible to convert a civil partnership to a marriage this is a very limited option. Only same sex couples who formed a partnership before marriage equality laws were introduced in March 2014 may convert to a marriage. From that point on, there is no scope to change one to the other. There is currently no facility to change a marriage to a partnership for any couple.

If you want to switch you will have to get a divorce or a dissolution and then form a new partnership/marriage, with all the costs involved in both processes. We strongly advise everyone to check while booking both the ceremony and the notice appointment to make sure it’s the correct type. You may not use a notice of marriage to form a civil partnership or vice versa. You would need to give notice all over again, possibly delaying the ceremony date if the mistake wasn’t picked up in time.