Ending a Civil Partnership or a Marriage: What are the Differences?

Ending a Civil Partnership or a Marriage: What are the Differences?
Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash.
Alexandra Bishop
Alexandra Bishop
Senior Associate
Kingsley Napley

Civil partnerships were first introduced in the Civil Partnership Act 2004 as a way for same sex couples to have their relationships legally recognised. Since 2019 couples irrespective of sex have been able enter into a civil partnership.

There are no real differences when ending a civil partnership or a marriage, or at least there are very few variations. This seems right given the context in which civil partnerships and same sex marriage came into play – to ensure the equal treatment for men and women regardless of sexual orientation to enter into a legally recognised partnership. This same equality and non-discrimination is reflected in the legal process to end a civil partnership or a marriage and the same legal and financial protection is given to couples when a marriage or civil partnership comes to an end.

Disappointingly, the law that protects those in legally recognised relationships is currently still lacking when it comes to protection for cohabiting couples where there is only a limited ability to make financial claims. As such there is a very real difference between ending a civil partnership or a marriage and ending a relationship that is not legally recognised.


In England and Wales, aside from a difference in terminology (if you want to end a civil partnership you apply for a dissolution and if you want to end your marriage you apply for a divorce), the rules and the process for dissolution and divorce are the same.

If parties who are married or have entered into a civil partnership in England are seeking to divorce abroad, however, it is important to take specific advice in that jurisdiction. Whilst opposite sex marriage formed in England and Wales is recognised worldwide, civil partnerships and same sex marriages are recognised in some countries but certainly not all. It will very much depend on the jurisdiction where a couple intends to divorce as to whether that country recognises a civil partnership and as to the rights such couples might have under local law, regardless of the clear position in England.

The process for obtaining a divorce or dissolution

Since the introduction of “no fault” divorce on 6 April 2022 when The Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 came into effect, the person applying for a divorce or dissolution only has to confirm within the divorce application that the marriage or partnership has broken down irretrievably and no supporting facts or evidence are required. This welcome change has allowed couples to end their marriages jointly and has removed the need for either party to blame the other for the breakdown of the relationship.

The process now takes place online via a court portal. If both parties agree to a divorce or dissolution then a joint application can be made. Alternatively, if just one party agrees to a divorce or dissolution then a sole application would be made. However, parties can only make the application once they have been married or in a civil partnership for over a year. The next stage of the divorce or dissolution is the application for a conditional order (the first stage of divorce and dissolution) which can be made 20 weeks after the application was issued. Once the conditional order has been pronounced there is a minimum timescale of six weeks and one day before the applicant can apply for a final order (for married couples) and a dissolution order (for couples in a civil partnership), which legally ends a marriage or partnership.

There is a very slight difference in the grounds required to annul a marriage compared to a civil partnership. Annulment is a different way of ending a marriage or civil partnership. Unlike divorce, either party can apply for an annulment in the first year of marriage or a civil partnership, although there needs to be very specific reasons for this. Annulment is very unusual. One of the grounds to be able to annul an opposite sex marriage is that a marriage has not been consummated since the wedding, although this does not apply to same sex marriage or civil partnership. Another reason a married couple could annul is because the respondent had a sexually transmitted disease when they married and the applicant was unaware of it at the time. Again this is not a valid reason to annul a civil partnership. 

Resolving the finances upon a divorce or dissolution

Married couples and couples in a civil partnership have the same financial claims upon a divorce or dissolution under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 and the Civil Partnership Act 2004.  There is no difference in the application of the law in determining a fair and reasonable financial settlement upon a divorce or dissolution. In the context of these financial proceedings, the court has the powers to make the following financial orders: property adjustment orders (transferring properties between spouses or civil partners or a sale of the assets), lump sum orders, pension orders (sharing a pension with your spouse or civil partner) and periodical payments (payments made from one spouse or civil partner to the other to provide income support).

Although the nature of civil partnerships and marriages in terms of their meaning and historical context are very different and couples may have strong reasons for choosing marriage over a civil partnership or vice versa, the legal protections afforded to these couples and the process for ending these relationships are essentially the same.

Read more articles by Kingsley Napley LLP.

About Alexandra Bishop

Alexandra is a Senior Associate in the Family and Divorce team at Kingsley Napley, with experience of all types of private family law work relating to both finances and children.

Alexandra offers practical and realistic advice and provides excellent care for her clients, working through technical legal problems pro-actively to achieve the best possible result.  She has been recognised for her work in Legal 500 2019, one of the leading legal directories in the UK.

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