Heterosexual couples will be able to enter into civil partnerships in England and Wales by the end of the year, say Hazel Wright and Anna Roiser
On 26th May 2019, an important new piece of legislation came into force, providing that by the end of the year heterosexual couples will be able to enter into civil partnerships in England and Wales.
The issue generated a lot of public interest last year, when the Supreme Court ruled, in a case brought by long-term partners Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, that the fact that same-sex couples had a choice between marriage and civil partnership, whilst opposite-sex couples did not, was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
The legislation requires the Government to make regulations for opposite-sex civil partnerships by 31 December 2019.
In the meantime, the Government will consult on some of the important details which need to be resolved. These include whether it will continue to be possible, as it is now for same-sex couples, to convert a civil partnership into a marriage, and whether it should be possible for couples who are currently married to convert their marriages to civil partnerships.
The new law will not apply in Scotland, which is holding its own consultation on whether to introduce opposite-sex civil partnerships, or in Northern Ireland. However, the change will bring England and Wales in line with many European countries including France, Holland, Greece and Gibraltar, which all provide for opposite-sex civil partnerships. Under the new law, civil partnerships either already made or to be made in those countries will, for the first time, be recognised in England and Wales.
The change in the law is welcome as it enhances individual autonomy, giving couples more choice about how they organise their personal lives. Many couples, such as Steinfeld and Keidan, choose not to marry because they object to marriage's historical patriarchal nature, or dislike its formality. However, many of those couples are unaware of the legal implications of their choice, falsely believing they have a "common law marriage" – which has not existed in England since 1753.
The legal benefits of marriage will apply to opposite-sex couples in civil partnerships. Significantly, this includes the right to claim financial provision at the end of a relationship. Just as is the case for married couples, couples will be able to plan how they would want to arrange their finances if their relationship ended, through the equivalent of a pre-nuptial agreement.
Other key benefits will be the ability to inherit assets from each other without Inheritance Tax becoming payable, the ability to transfer assets between themselves without Capital Gains Tax becoming payable, and enhanced rights to claim financial provision on the death of the other party.
Many potential claimants are stunned when a lawyer tells them that even though they had a lengthy relationship with their partner, and perhaps gave up work to look after their children, their partner has no financial obligations to them when the relationship ends. This is widely agreed to be one of the most problematic aspects of family law in England and Wales. The ability to enter into a civil partnership rather than a marriage may save many from this situation.
However, there are still likely to be many couples who do not formalise their relationships, unaware of the legal implications of this choice. Given the Government's other priorities it seems unlikely that this will be resolved in the near future, and the extension of civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples may even be used to suggest, wrongly, that this is no longer a pressing matter.
Hazel Wright, and Anna Roiser are lawyers at Hunters Law