The Government has announced that all couples in England and Wales will be able to choose to have a civil partnership rather than get married, following a Supreme Court ruling. We summarise what is going to change and consider what this means for unmarried couples and their families.
The law will be changed to allow mixed-sex couples to enter civil partnerships, three months after the Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Partnership Act 2004 was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights and that it was discriminatory to restrict civil partnerships to same-sex couples.
The Court unanimously ruled in favour of Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan from London, who launched their own legal bid to be allowed to have a civil partnership. The pair wanted legal recognition of their relationship which does not have “patriarchal baggage”.
The law change will give mixed-sex couples and their families the option of greater security, addressing an imbalance that allows same-sex couples to choose, but not mixed-sex couples.
The Scottish government is also now carrying out a consultation on allowing mixed-sex couples to enter into civil partnerships.
There are more than 3.3 million unmarried couples in Britain who live together with shared financial responsibilities – nearly half of whom have children.
Many of these co-habiting couples believe they possess similar rights and protections to those enjoyed by married couples - but they don't.
It can cause enormous distress when, often on separation or the death of their partner, they realise they have far fewer inheritance, property and pension rights than they had thought.
What are Civil Partnerships?
They were created in 2004 to give same-sex couples - who at the time couldn't marry - similar legal and financial protection to a marriage.
In a civil partnership, a couple is entitled to the same legal treatment in terms of inheritance, tax, pensions and next-of-kin arrangements as marriage. Since March 2014, same-sex couples have been able to decide whether to enter a civil partnership or to marry, but this has not been possible for mixed-sex couples
Then, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 legalised same-sex marriage in England and Wales and the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act 2014 did the same there.
Since then, same-sex couples there have been able to choose between marriage or civil partnerships - except in Northern Ireland, where they are still not able to marry.
But the opposite didn't become true - mixed-sex couples didn't get the right to a civil partnership.
A civil partnership is formed by signing a document, but there is no requirement for a ceremony to take place or to exchange vows - unlike for a marriage.
Above: Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, who have fought for change to the Civil Partnerships law for mixed sex couples for 4 years, before bringing and winning the case at the Supreme Court - Picture courtesy of PA and Sky News
What could this mean for couples and their families?
The government said there were "a number of legal issues to consider, across pension and family law" and ministers would now consult on the technical detail. There are a number of significant questions to consider.
On Wills and Inheritance:
Where a couple has been together for many years but marriage was not for them, will the Civil Partnership option provide the same inheritance tax benefits? Typically, solicitors have advised couples that, for tax purposes, they would be better off married but some people really do not like the religious aspect of marriage.
What will happen where a Will has been made in expectation of marriage and the couple then enter into a Civil Partnership? When the law changed for same-sex couples and there was a Will in expectation of a Civil Partnership, they were best advised to re-make their Will if they married because it was a “grey area” as to whether the Will would then have been revoked by marriage.
Currently, to apply to live in the UK with a partner, you must be able to prove that you are in a recognised Civil Partnership or marriage of any duration. However, couples in an unmarried mixed-sex relationship have to prove they have been living together for 24 months. This requirement would no longer apply as they would fall into the civil partnership category.
A client who is in a Civil Partnership would be treated as being married for the purposes of Stamp Duty Land Tax (SDLT) or Capital Gains Tax (CGT). For the latter, specialist tax advice should be sought on the how the changes could affect them.
Where there are co-owners, how the equitable interest is held will still be dependent on whether they are joint tenants or tenants in common, not whether they are married/civil partners/just co-habiting.
It is very welcome that this will now give them formal legal recognition of the relationship and therefore some protection in the event that the relationship fails.
Seek Legal Advice on the Changes
It is important that mixed-sex co-habiting couples understand how these positive changes will affect your legal status. Anderson Rowntree Solicitors have an expert team across their offices in Chichester, Storrington and Petworth who can advise on how this could affect matters concerning property, family law and wills into the future.