The announcement that civil partnerships are to be extended to mixed-sex couples has been met with mixed reactions. There are those who are wholly in favour, and there are those who think there is no need as mixed-sex couples have, for centuries, been able to get married, and that now that there is marriage equality in England, Wales and Scotland, civil partnerships should be withdrawn.

Two sisters are now calling on the government to extend mixed-sex civil partnerships to siblings.  Catherine and Virginia Utley have lived together for over 30 years, bought a house together and have jointly raised Catherine’s daughter. When one of them dies, the other faces a large Inheritance Tax bill, which will probably mean she will have to sell the home they have lived in and shared for over 23 years. They want to be able to enter into a civil partnership with each other to be able to benefit from the Inheritance Tax advantages that are available to couples in either a civil partnership or marriage. The sisters have said that they feel excluding siblings from civil partnerships is “pure discrimination”.

A bill, put forward by Lord Lexden, proposes that civil partnerships be extended to siblings. The Civil Partnership Act 2004 (Amendment) (Sibling Couples) Bill (HL Bill 25) calls for “Two persons who are considered to be siblings, both of whom are aged over thirty years, are eligible to register as civil partners if they have lived together for a continuous period of twelve years immediately prior to the date of registration.” Lord Lexden rightly makes clear that, unlike marriage, civil partnerships do not require a sexual element (such as consummation), and allowing siblings to enter into a civil partnership would mean they'd be in a legally recognised relationship that would protect both parties legally and financially.

The Bill is currently waiting for a date to be heard at Committee Stage in the House of Lords.

What is currently stopping siblings of the same sex from entering into a civil partnership?

Schedule 1 of the Civil Partnership Act 2004 sets out the prohibited degrees of relationship, which prevent certain relations from entering into a civil partnership together. Two people are within prohibited degrees of relationship if one falls within the list below in relation to the other:

  • Adoptive child
  • Adoptive parent
  • Child
  • Former adoptive child
  • Former adoptive parent
  • Grandparent
  • Grandchild
  • Parent
  • Parent’s sibling
  • Sibling
  • Sibling’s child

The prohibited degrees of relationship are there to prevent incestuous relationships from being legalised. The same prohibited degrees are also in the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973.

To remove those prohibited degrees may be seen by some as legalising incest – a step too far for even the most liberal minded of people.

The sisters might be better focusing on the disparity that lies in the Residence Nil Rate Band, which is an additional nil rate band where family property is left to:

  • A spouse or civil partner
  • A child, including an adopted child, a stepchild or foster child
  • A grandchild of a deceased child
  • The widow or widower of a deceased child who has not remarried

Siblings or other close blood relatives such as nieces and nephews are not eligible to receive this additional IHT benefit. It is curious that a non-blood relative (the widow/er of a deceased child) is eligible, but not siblings. This does appear to be discriminatory against some close blood relations who may well be the only relations a testator has.

A campaign to change the Inheritance Tax legislation would benefit many more people than opening up civil partnerships to all partnerships and removing the prohibited degrees of relationship. It would also be a change that society would be able to understand and agree with.

There has been no timescale announced for the introduction of mixed-sex civil partnerships. Brexit is currently dominating the political agenda and will continue to do so after March 2019. It is unlikely that this will be a priority for the current government, and should there be a change of government, these plans could be shelved altogether.


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