Civil partnership or marriage? Mixed-sex couples now have the choice

It’s now official – heterosexual couples in England and Wales can formalise their relationship with a civil partnership rather than marriage. Civil partnerships were first introduced through the Civil Partnerships Act 2004 and was only available to same-sex couples .

As of the 31st of December 2019, mixed-sex couples have been able to form this union. The amendment to the Act was made as a result of a Supreme Court ruling which confirmed that the Civil Partnerships Act 2004 was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

So, what are the differences?

84,000 – This is the approximate number of mixed-sex couples who are projected to form civil partnerships in 2020.
This status is expected to be a popular option for many unmarried couples. Due to many people being opposed to the religious connotations associated with marriage or having a desire to simply not marry for personal reasons, this provides the legal recognition of their relationship they may desire.

When it comes to the processes, entering into a civil partnership involves signing of a document where the partners become ‘civil partners’. Marriage, on the other hand, traditionally involves a ceremony where the mixed-sex or same-sex couple expresses vows to each other, often in the presence of family and/ or loved ones and become ‘spouses’.

How will this affect Wills?

In England and Wales, if someone has an existing Will and gets married, it is automatically revoked and becomes void. In order to maintain its validity, it is vital to have a Will updated as soon as possible after marriage. If a Will is not updated and a spouse passes away, unfortunately the estate would be distributed according to the rules of intestacy.

However, if a spouse has a valid Will, then the surviving spouse will inherit any assets according to the terms of the Will.

In a civil partnership, the rules are identical to marriage.

Is there an impact on Inheritance Tax?

Good news – HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) views civil partners and married couples in the same way. This means that Inheritance Tax exemptions that are made available to a surviving spouse who is a beneficiary of their spouse’s assets, are also available to surviving civil partners. Spouses and civil partners are also able to transfer their unused nil rate band allowance to their partner in order to reduce the potential tax payable on the second death.

Alternatively, couples who are neither married nor in a civil partnership (i.e. cohabiting couples) would not be exempt from Inheritance Tax when one person passes away. Taxes would be payable on everything over the nil rate band, which is currently £325,000. Furthermore, any unused nil band rate allowances cannot be passed to a cohabiting partner and would therefore be lost upon the first death.

So clearly, one of the benefits of being a married couple or civil partners is the potential to pay much less tax than cohabiting couples.

What does it all mean?

Other than the process and titles used in marriage versus civil partnerships, not much else is different, especially when performing the administration of an estate. The stability and legal benefits that were only available to married couples or same-sex civil partners are now available to everyone who enters into one of these formalised relationship statuses. With 3.3 million cohabiting couples in the UK, it is likely that many may consider this option to add legal recognition to their relationship.


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