The enshrinement of civil partnerships into law was an important stage in the advancement of gay and lesbian rights. The UK government introduced the Civil Partnership Act in 2004 to bring the rights of gay people into line with those of heterosexual couples. However, many people are still unsure of what specifically a civil partnership entails, and how it differs from what is classed as a traditional marriage.
1) The Ceremony
The law currently forbids any religious content from being allowed in a civil partnership ceremony. This does not mean that there cannot be a blessing from a religious figure; however, the ceremony itself, as with a civil registration, must be secular. The ceremony can be held in any venue that has a licence for conducting civil services. The lack of a religious element is the one important distinction between civil partnerships and heterosexual marriages.
People in civil partnerships have the same rights as married parents when it comes to children. An individual can become a step-parent to his or her partner's children, and assume all of the responsibilities that that entails. This could include paying maintenance if the partnership dissolves. In terms of adoption, the law states that gay and straight couples should be treated exactly the same.
3) Civil Partnerships and Immigration
Any UK or European Economic Area national can legally register a civil partnership in the UK, as can anybody who holds permanent residence. It is important to note however, that entering into a civil partnership does not necessarily affect a person's immigration status.
4) Benefits and Tax
When it comes to benefits and taxes, couples in civil partnerships are assessed by HMRC in exactly the same way as married couples. For example, the income of both partners will be taken into account to calculate any council tax or housing benefit entitlements. It should be noted that Inheritance Tax is not applicable to couples within a civil partnership, and in fact it is advisable to contact HMRC for advice regarding any tax or benefit issue.
5) Death and Wills
An individual in a civil partnership has the right to register his or her partner's death, and can also claim compensation in the case of a fatal accident. If a death occurs without the formation of a will the surviving civil partner will be entitled to a share of the estate under the rules of intestacy.
Prior to the Civil Partnership Act 2004, couples in civil partnerships did not enjoy the same pension benefits as married couples. The changes which the law introduced meant that when a person died, his or her civil partner was entitled to a pension pay-out, just as with married couples. It should be noted that the law does not cover non contracted-out pension schemes, meaning that, technically, some employers could discriminate between couples, although this is by no means standard practice.
When a marriage breaks down it is called a divorce, but when a civil partnership ends it is called a dissolution. The process is the same, but the terminology differs. A civil partnership is a legally binding union, and it must be dissolved in the proper legal framework, just as with a marriage. It is not always necessary to seek legal advice before beginning an application for dissolution, but it is advisable.
In short, civil partnerships effectively differ from a marriage in name only. Gay and lesbian couples are entitled to all of the rights of straight couples, and are bound by all of the same legal responsibilities. This does not mean that there is true marriage equality, however as the existing legislation allows only for gay couples to enter into a civil union, and not a marriage. With David Cameron's proposals to legislate for gay marriages by 2014, it seems to be only a matter of time before full marriage equality is achieved.