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Marriages, Civil Partnerships and Cohabitation – What Is The Legal Difference?

03 Mar 2020

The introduction last December of civil partnerships for couples of the opposite sex marked the latest landmark in the rapid recent evolution we’ve seen in the formalisation of our most important personal relationships.

Back in 2005, same sex couples who wanted their relationships legally recognised were given the right to enter into a Civil Partnership, an arrangement which gave the two parties roughly the same rights and responsibilities as a married couple without actually being called a ‘marriage’

This option of “marriage” was eventually extended to same sex couples in 2014, with same sex civil partners being able to convert their legal status to marriage if they wished.

Same sex couples can still enter into a Civil Partnership if they prefer, although as noted above, the legal differences are minimal, and opposite sex couples now also have that option – so in summary, it is now possible to have opposite sex and same sex marriages and opposite sex and same sex Civil Partnership!


Of course, many couples choose to cohabit without entering into any legally binding relationship – and as such, they do not have the same legal rights and responsibilities as people who have.

For example, there is no legal right for partners in a cohabiting couple to make any claim for financial provision, such as for cash, money for housing, pension or maintenance, if they split up, no matter how long they have lived together.


If a cohabiting couple jointly owns a property, then property and trust law will dictate how the proceeds of its sale would be divided between them at the end of their relationship.

If it was purchased as joint tenants, both parties will have an identical interest in the property, so any sale proceeds will be divided equally between the parties.

However, if one party has made greater financial contributions to the deposit, mortgage repayments or renovations to the property, things are less clear-cut, and it would be wise to take legal advice about the individual details of the particular situation.


It‘s obviously common for cohabiting couples to start a family, and for one party give up work or reduce their hours so they can become the primary carer for their children.

In this situation, the wage earner may accrue pension in their own name and may also be able to save some of their income into their own bank account, whereas the parent providing childcare has no or limited earnings in order to do either.

Nicola Matthews 2017

If the parties one day separate, the parent providing childcare does not have the right to a share of those savings or pension for themselves, whereas a person who was married or in a Civil Partnership would have.

In these circumstances, the parent providing childcare can only ask the wage earner to provide money to meet the children’s needs.


The wage earner may sometimes provide money for a property to be purchased to house the parent providing childcare and the children.

However, this money will be subject to a Trust, so that it will be returned to the wage earner when the youngest child reaches 18.

If the parents had been married or in a registered Civil Partnership, their assets and income would be collectively taken into account.  Fairness may then dictate that the economically weaker party should receive a share of the wage earner’s savings and pension and money from the sale proceeds of the family home, even if they had made fewer contributions.

They are entitled to make these claims on their own behalf, whether or not they have children.

Rights and Responsibilities 

As you can see, the rights and responsibilities of people in marriages and Civil Partnerships are very different from those of co-habiting couples.

While perhaps not terribly romantic, it makes sense to fully understand your legal position before co-habiting, marrying or entering into a Civil Partnership.

If one party has pre-owned assets they wish to protect in the event of a break-up, a pre-nuptial agreement should be seriously considered before the big day.

For more information on any of the above, or how we can help you, please contact Nicola Matthews, or call 0191 232 8345.