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What is the difference between civil partnership and equal marriage?

To mark the anniversary of equal marriage in England, we compare the differences between same sex marriage and civil partnerships.

Eight years ago, on 17 July 2013, royal assent was granted to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, enabling same-sex marriages to take place from 29 March 2014.

The statistics: an overview of equal marriage and civil partnership formations

(Source - Population estimates by marital status and living arrangements England and Wales: 2019)

  • In 2019, of 193,000 people estimated to be in a legally recognised partnership with someone of the same sex, 104,000 (54%) were married
  • Of the 104,000 people, 63,000 are males and 41,000 females
  • This accounts for 0.4% of the married population;
  • The number of people in same-sex marriages increased initially following their introduction in 2014 but the proportion has remained relatively consistent over recent years
  • The remainder, 89,000 people (46%) have entered into same sex civil partnerships
  • Data for 2018 showed that the number of civil partnerships had increased following a large decrease between 2013 and 2015 after the introduction of marriage for same-sex couples in 2014.

In 2019, of 193,000 people estimated to be in a legally recognised partnership with someone of the same sex, 104,000 (54%) were married

The latest statistics: equal marriage ceremonies

(Source - ONS: Marriages in England and Wales: 2020)

The latest available marriage statistics take us to four years after the law was changed.

  • There were 242,842 marriages in England and Wales in 2017
  • There were 6,932 marriages of same-sex couples in 2017
  • 56% were between female couples
  • A further 1,072 couples converted their existing civil partnership into a marriage during 2017.

The latest statistics: same sex couples generally

(Source - ONS: Families and Households in the UK: 2019)

  • In 2019 ONS reported that same-sex married couples were the fastest growing type of same-sex family
  • There were 212,00 same-sex families in the UK in 2019, having increased by 40.0% since 2015
  • Same-sex cohabiting couples remained the most common type of same-sex couple family, accounting for just over half of same-sex families in 2019
  • The proportion of same-sex cohabiting couples has decreased from 59.6% in 2015 to 51.6% in 2019, driven by the growing number of same-sex married couple families.

The number of same sex families in the UK has increased by 40% since 2015

What are the differences between civil partnership and equal marriage?

Fundamentally, and from a legal perspective, there are no major differences between the two. There are however some subtle differences which are summarised in the table below:

  Marriage Civil partnership
How to describe the relationship Married couples cannot call themselves ‘civil partners’ for legal purposes. Civil partners cannot call themselves ‘married’ for legal purposes.
How to enter into either civil partnership or marriage Marriages are solemnized by saying a prescribed form of words. Civil partnerships are registered by signing the civil partnership document, with no words required to be spoken.
Marriages can be conducted through a civil ceremony, or a religious ceremony (subject to provisos). The formation of a civil partnership is an entirely civil event. Civil partners can choose to add a ceremony (religious or not) to follow the formation of their civil partnership.
Notice of marriage is given by each party in the registration district in which they have lived for the previous 7 days. Notice of civil partnership is given by each partner anywhere within the local authority in which they have lived for the previous 7 days.
The details of marriages are recorded in an electronic register. The details of civil partnerships are recorded in an electronic register.
Certificates Marriage certificates include the names of both parents of the parties. Civil partnership certificates include the names of both parents of the parties.
Divorce / Dissolution

Also see * below
Marriage is ended by divorce, by obtaining a decree absolute. Civil partnerships are ended by a dissolution order.

*There are also some variations of grounds to either annul or divorce the other party. A family lawyer can explain the differences, which relate to the reason given to the court for either the annulment or the divorce. There may also be some differences in State Pension provision.

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