It was as odd as it was anomalous that for some time heterosexual couples did not have the same legal right to civil partnerships as their same-sex counterparts did under the Civil Partnerships Act 2004. In fact, alongside numerous campaigners, the oddity was recognised by leading gay rights activist Peter Tatchell, who went so far as to call it discriminatory.

However, the law has now changed, meaning that heterosexual couples who do not wish to enter into a marriage are now able to undertake a civil partnership which affords them near legal equality with married couples without any of the religious or patriarchal connotations.

This important change to the law came into effect on 2 December 2019 and provides rights and protections in the event of eventual relationship breakdown, separation, and death. Unfortunately, the same cannot yet be said for cohabiting couples who choose not to enter into any legally-recognised, formal partnership.

The differences between civil partnerships and marriage

Parties to a civil partnership have almost identical rights as the parties to a marriage. However, there are some differences between the two institutions. These are as follows:

  • Civil partnership ceremonies cannot have any religious connotation (similar to civil wedding ceremonies).
  • Marriage is created by the exchange of vows during a wedding ceremony and the signing of the marriage register. A civil partnership is created by the registration of the civil partnership and the signing of a civil partnership schedule, no vows are required. Both procedures need witnesses and a formal representative, such as a registrar, to sign the appropriate register.
  • A civil partnership document contains the names of both parents of each party, whereas only the fathers' names appear on a marriage certificate.
  • Both types of union are dissolved by similar procedures; however a marriage ends in 'divorce' whereas a civil partnership ends with 'dissolution'.
  • A civil partnership cannot be legally voided by non-consummation, whereas a heterosexual marriage can be annulled if the married partners have not had sexual intercourse since the wedding (however, this does not apply for same-sex married couples).

Are civil partnerships the future for heterosexual couples?

The coming decades could see a significant uptake in civil partnerships between heterosexual couples and this is likely to be for a number of reasons.

  • The rise of secularism in the UK has seen a gradual downturn in the number of couples seeking traditional 'church' weddings.
  • Although secular, civil weddings still feature a set of 'vows' and certain patriarchal connotations which seem outmoded, irrelevant and even antagonistic to some people.
  • Couples who merely cohabit are at a severe disadvantage when it comes to inheritance and probate, and civil partnerships over a very pragmatic route to formal recognition of a relationship.

Civil partnerships - inheritance tax and probate implications

A cohabiting partner cannot leave their estate to their partner without incurring Inheritance Tax (IHT), while married and civil partners can utilise the nil-rate band tax-free allowance for inheritance planning purposes.

It is important to remember that, in the same way as for married partners, there may be inheritance tax to pay if a deceased civil partner has left bequests to other parties (or indeed any lifetime gifts within seven years of their date of death).

Married and civil partners, unlike cohabitees, can also inherit their partner’s pension or ISA investments which, outside of property, often constitutes most people’s most valuable assets.

How it works

Any person can leave up to £325,000 of their estate free of inheritance tax. In addition, a civil partner, just like a married spouse, may leave all their estate to their partner free of inheritance tax, meaning that the surviving partner effectively has a £650,000 inheritance tax-free allowance on their death and this can significantly reduce IHT liabilities for beneficiaries.

Inheritance and probate with Oratto

Oratto member solicitors understand the issues regarding inheritance tax planning for married spouses and civil partners and can offer advice to help you ensure that your wealth directly benefits those people in your life you most want to help.

Also, if you are unmarried or not civil partnered and your loved-one has died, it may be in your best interest to consult an expert probate solicitor who can help you seek the legacy your partner would have wanted you to have.

Contact Oratto today so that we can match you with the most suitable member solicitor for your specific legal issue. Our members have wide-ranging experience in how to handle inheritance tax planning and probate disputes for unmarried partners and when a partner has died without making a Will.