A civil partnership is a legally recognised relationship between two people, either same sex or mixed sex.
In legal terms, civil partners enjoy the same legal rights and protections as married couples. This extends to areas such as tax benefits, pensions, inheritance and on relationship breakdown. The primary difference with marriage is there is no religious basis to a civil partnership.
The following guide provides an overview of the law relating to civil partnerships, including the rights of civil partners on death and relationship breakdown.
Civil partnership inheritance rules
As a civil partner, if either you or your partner dies intestate, ie; without a valid will, the surviving partner will automatically be entitled to inherit part or all of the deceased’s estate under the rules of intestacy.
Under the current intestacy rules, a civil partner is entitled to inherit the first £250,000 of the deceased’s estate, plus any personal possessions, together with half of anything over and above that amount. The remaining half will be divided between any children, grandchildren or great grandchildren.
Where the deceased’s estate is worth less than £250,000, the surviving civil partner will inherit the whole estate and the deceased’s children will receive nothing. If there are no direct descendants, any surviving partner will again inherit the entire estate.
If you jointly own your home with your civil partner, or any other property, the manner in which this is treated for inheritance purposes depends on how you own it. There are two different ways of jointly owning a home, ie; under a beneficial joint tenancy or as tenants in common.
If you and your civil partner were beneficial joint tenants at the time of death, when the first partner dies, the surviving partner will automatically inherit the deceased’s share of the property under the rules of survivorship. However, where property is held as tenants in common, the deceased’s share will be dealt with under the provisions of any written will or the rules of intestacy.
If you and your civil partner have informally separated, and you die intestate, any surviving partner will still be entitled to inherit as if you were living together. On the contrary, the effect of a legal separation order from the court means that if either you or your civil partner dies without a valid will, any property you own will devolve as if your partner was dead.
In other words, your civil partner will not automatically inherit anything from your estate, rather any property and possessions will be distributed in accordance with the terms of any written will or under the rules of intestacy.
Dissolving a civil partnership
If you and your partner split up, you would need to apply to the courts to legally bring the relationship to an end. This is known as dissolution of a civil partnership.
Whilst disputes about joint finances or custody of any children can become complicated, typically the formal process that is required to officially end a civil partnership is, in itself, relatively quick and straightforward.
However, you cannot apply to dissolve the civil partnership until it has lasted for at least one year. Further, you cannot simply state that you have fallen out of love or that you have grown apart. In England and Wales, as with divorce, there is no system of no-fault dissolution, rather you must provide the court with grounds.
Under section 44 of the Civil Partnership Act 2004, it provides that an application for a dissolution order may be made by either civil partner on the ground that the relationship has “broken down irretrievably”, ie; to the point where it cannot be saved.
However, to satisfy the statutory “irretrievable breakdown” requirement, you must prove one of the following four sets of facts:
- Unreasonable behaviour, ie; your partner has behaved in such a way that you cannot reasonably be expected to live with them. This could include physical or verbal abuse, financial irresponsibility or sexual infidelity.
- Desertion, ie; your partner has left you, against your wishes and without good reason, for a continuous period of at least 2 years.
- 2-year separation with consent, ie; you and your partner have lived apart for a continuous period of at least 2 years, and you both agree to end the civil partnership.
- 5-year separation without consent, ie; you and your partner have lived apart for a continuous period of at least 5 years. With a 5-year separation the consent of both parties is not needed.
Legal separation in a civil partnership
If you do not want to officially bring your civil partnership to an end, perhaps to allow you and your partner some time to reconcile, or it has been less than one year since you registered your partnership, you can apply for a legal separation so you can live apart.
In granting a separation order, the court will have regard to the same facts as those that can be relied upon when applying for a dissolution order, ie; unreasonable behaviour, desertion, or that you and your civil partner have been living apart for a minimum of two or five years.
However, with a legal separation, neither of you will be free to register another civil partnership, or to marry, unless and until the court grants a final order following an application for dissolution.
Annulling a civil partnership
To annul a civil partnership means to declare it invalid. The court may grant an annulment in circumstances where either it can be shown that the civil partnership is void or voidable.
A civil partnership may be void in circumstances where either you, or your civil partner, were under the age of 16 at the time of entering into that partnership. It may also be declared void if certain formalities were not met, for example, that due notice of the proposed civil partnership had not been given prior to registering.
If your civil partnership is not legally valid, the court will treat it as if it had never taken place or ever existed.
A civil partnership will be voidable, for example, if either you or your civil partner did not give valid consent, whether because you were forced or not of sound mind. Alternatively, it may be voidable where one of you, although capable of giving a valid consent, was suffering from a mental disorder that made you unfit for a civil partnership.
If voidable, this means the civil partnership was legal at the time it was registered, but it isn’t legal any longer.
If you want to apply for an annulment, generally speaking you must do so within three years of the date you registered your civil partnership, or after three years with leave of the court.
Taking legal advice about civil partnerships
Understanding your legal rights in a civil partnership is important, not least if your relationship breaks down, or on the death of either one of you.
When dissolving a civil partnership, complications can often arise in relation to disputes over finances and any children. You may also want to make provision for your children in the event that you die.
Alternatively, you may want to consider a legal separation, or even explore the possibility of having your civil partnership annulled.
By seeking professional legal help, you can feel assured that you fully understand your legal rights and responsibilities in a civil partnership. Moreover, your legal adviser can help you plan for any future unfortunate eventualities by way of a written will or otherwise.
The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.