This page explains the law on marriage and civil partnership. It provides information on the rights, responsibilities and obligations of parties to a marriage and civil partnership.
What is marriage?
Marriage is a formal contract voluntarily entered into between two persons to live together in a relationship for life to the exclusion of all others. Both heterosexual and homosexual couples can get married. It creates obligations on each party to financially support the other. Each spouse also gets home rights to their property.
A marriage can only be ended by divorce or annulment – for more information see our pages on Divorce and Alternatives to ending a marriage or civil partnership.
Note: there is no such thing in law as a ‘common law marriage’. You will not acquire rights to property or financial support merely because you live with a partner for a certain length of time. If you are not married or in a civil partnership you may wish to consider entering into a cohabitation agreement
What is a cohabitation agreement?
A cohabitation agreement is a written signed document between people living together as a couple which agrees on key matters such as:
- who owns (and owes) what, at the time of the agreement;
- how you will pay for bills, the house and other expenses while you are living together; and
- how property, assets and income should be divided if you split up.
It is advisable to seek independent legal advice when drawing up a cohabitation agreement so that it can be used in any future court proceedings upon relationship breakdown. You can find a solicitor on the Law Society website.
Note: Any agreement as to arrangements for children will be evidence of intention but not necessarily enforceable. For more information on sorting out arrangements for children see our information pages on:
What is civil partnership?
Civil partnership is a formal legal relationship between same-sex partners and heterosexual partners who will acquire the status of civil partner. This grants rights, responsibilities and obligations similar to those of married couples. The law is contained in the Civil Partnership Act 2004.
Note: The UK’s Supreme Court decided on 27 June 2018 to make civil partnerships available for heterosexual couples as well as same-sex couples.
Who is eligible for a civil partnership?
In order to enter into a civil partnership:
- both parties must have the capacity to consent;
- both parties must give their true and genuine consent;
- neither party can already be a civil partner or lawfully married;
- both parties must be over the age of 16, and if under 18, written parental consent is required;
- the parties must not be closely related;
- both parties must have lived in the United Kingdom for at least seven days.
How do you register a civil partnership?
There are two steps to register a civil partnership:
- give notice of your intention to register a civil partnership to the local register office in person;
- register the partnership after 28 days and within 12 months of giving notice.
What is a ‘Civil Partnership Agreement’?
Couples can enter into a civil partnership agreement which is the equivalent of an engagement to marry. It is often used to make financial arrangements if the relationship ends. However, the civil partnership agreement does not have contractual effect and parties will not acquire the same rights, responsibilities and obligations as entering into and registering a civil partnership.
What rights do civil partners get?
Once a civil partnership is entered into and registered, civil partners acquire the same rights and responsibilities as married couples. Civil partners have a mutual duty to maintain each other.
A civil partner who is not the biological parent of a child can apply for parental responsibility for the child either by entering into a Step-Parental Responsibility Agreement with the person(s) with parental responsibility or getting a Step-Parental Responsibility Order from the court. For more information see our page on Parental Responsibility.
Civil partners can also apply to adopt a child.
Civil partners have a duty to provide maintenance for any child of the family and a partner can apply for financial support for a child. For more information contact Child Maintenance Options.
Can you convert a civil partnership into a marriage?
From 10 December 2014, if your civil partnership has been registered in England and Wales you can convert the civil partnership into a marriage. This can be done through either a standard conversion or a conversion followed by a ceremony. This only applies for same-sex civil partners; there is not a right to covert a civil partnership to a marriage for opposite-sex civil partners.
Further information on how to convert a civil partnership into a marriage can be found here.