When a civil partnership breaks down, the two parties involved cannot divorce as a married couple can. Instead, a civil partnership is most commonly ended via dissolution, although in certain cases the couple may apply for a nullity order (annulment) or a (Judicial) Separation Order. This guide explains who can end a civil partnership, how to go about it, what costs might be involved and the legal implications of doing so.
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What is a civil partnership?
A civil partnership is a legal relationship between two parties which enjoys many of the same benefits as a traditional marriage with regards to taxation, inheritance and pensions.
It was introduced in 2004 as an alternative to marriage by the Labour government, initially aimed at same-sex couples. At that time, same-sex marriage was not legal in the UK.
How does a civil partnership differ from marriage?
A civil partnership is different from a conventional marriage in that it is free from all religious connotations, making it an alternative for couples who want to commit to each other in a legal relationship but do not want to identify themselves with any specific religion.
Accordingly, a civil partnership ceremony will be conducted by a registrar, as opposed to a vicar, rabbi or other clerical person. The ceremony itself will not contain any exchanging of vows, hymns, prayers or other elements of a traditional wedding, but simply the signing of a contract.
After the civil partnership is finalised, the two parties will not generally refer to each other using the terms “husband” or “wife” as married couples do. Instead, they are simply known as “civil partners”.
Can opposite sex couples have a civil partnership?
In February 2018, the government began reviewing civil partnerships with a view to expanding them to include opposite sex couples. Before the review could be completed, the Supreme Court ruled that restricting civil partnerships to same-sex couples was incompatible with the Human Rights Act 1998 under Schedule 1. This led to the government changing the law to allow opposite sex couples to enter into civil partnerships.
Since 2nd December 2019, opposite sex couples in England and Wales have been able to enter into a civil partnership, which was quickly followed by Northern Ireland on 13th January 2020.
How can you end a civil partnership?
When a civil partnership breaks down, there are three options available for ending it:
- nullity application (annulment)
- judicial separation
Dissolution is by far the most common option and can be applied for by either party, which a judge will usually grant without the necessity of the intervention of the court unless the other party disputes the dissolution.
What is a dissolution application?
Those seeking a dissolution should first fill out a dissolution application, known as Form D8. The application can be completed online and by downloading and completing a paper form. This form should be accompanied by the original civil partnership certificate and the fee for filing the application. If applying for exemption from the fee, the appropriate form (Form EX160) should also be included.
The application for dissolution can be made by one party or jointly. There is a limit on the ability of the respondent to challenge the application, which can now only be disputed on certain limited grounds. These are:
- If you can prove the civil partnership was never valid
- If the civil partnership has already legally ended.
For ‘Jurisdiction’ at least one of the following or a combination of the following applies:
a) Habitual residence – if either of you are based mainly in England and Wales, then you are what is legally known as ‘habitually resident’. This could include owning property, having children at school, and your main family life takes place in England and Wales. This is not an exhaustive list of what constitutes habitual resident, and merely because some of them apply to your circumstances, does not necessarily mean you are habitually resident.
b) Domicile – your domicile is usually the place where you were born, regarded as your permanent home and to which you have the closest ties. However, domicile can be more complex if you or your parents have moved countries in the past. When someone is born, they acquire a domicile of origin. This tends to be the country their father considered their permanent home if their parents were married and/or the country of their mother if their parents were unmarried or the father has died. If someone leaves the domicile of origin and settles in another country as an adult, the new country may become their domicile of choice.
If they dispute the dissolution on any of the above limited grounds, again they must indicate their opposition on the form D10 and will have 21 days after the acknowledgement of service form to file the appropriate form (Form DB8), citing the reasons why they are defending the original civil partnership. This will then take the matter before a hearing, where a judge will decide whether to grant a conditional order or not.
After the application for dissolution has been made 20 weeks must elapse. Following which, the applicant can apply for a conditional order. A final order can be applied for 6 weeks and 1 day after the date of the conditional order.
What is a conditional order?
A conditional order is a document that states that the court does not see any reason why the couple’s civil partnership cannot be dissolved. This can be applied for after the 20-week period has expired.
What is a final order?
After the conditional order has been granted, the party (or both parties in joint applications) that initially filed for dissolution must wait six weeks and one day before applying for a final order by filing Form D36. The final order ends the civil partnership. This application must not take place later than 12 months after receiving the conditional order.
Meanwhile, if the first party does not file for a final order and the other party wishes to do so, they must wait for three months and one day before they can apply for a final order. After the final order has been granted, the civil partnership is officially dissolved and both parties are once again single in the eyes of the law.
Who is eligible to dissolve a civil partnership?
Either party in a couple or both parties jointly can apply for dissolution of their civil partnership if one year has elapsed since the date of the original ceremony and they state that their civil partnership has “irretrievably broken down”.
What are the costs involved in dissolving a civil partnership?
The cost of the original dissolution application (Form D8) is £593 and should be sent at the time of applying. If the respondent wishes to dispute the application, the cost of doing so is £245 and should be sent with their reasons for disputing the civil partnership on Form DB8. The cost of filing a conditional order is £50, while the cost of filing a final order (Form D36) is £45 for the original applicant or £167 for the respondent.
With all of the above costs, there is financial aid available to help those on low income, benefits or people who cannot afford to pay the fees. Those who wish to apply for exemption for any of the aforementioned fees should fill in and send Form EX160 along with their application.
These fees do not cover any legal advice you may require as part of the dissolution process. Law firms’ fees vary, but most will give an indication of total costs during your first meeting with them. It is advisable for both parties in a civil partnership to seek legal advice from the outset.
Financial settlements after dissolving a civil partnership
A dissolution of a civil partnership holds the same financial implications as a divorce does, in that the starting point for division of the couple’s assets will be 50/50. However, deviation from this starting point can and often does occur to ensure a fair settlement for all involved, taking into account disparity between the incomes of the two partners, their individual assets and the presence of any children in the family.
While it is preferable for the civil partners to work out a financial arrangement that both are happy with, typically the involvement of solicitors is necessary to work out and formalise an agreement. In either case, full and frank disclosure of all assets and incomes is instrumental in ensuring a fair settlement, and all agreements should be recorded in writing regardless of whether a solicitor is involved.
Maintenance payments between the two parties might concern the upbringing and welfare of children, and as such will take the form of child support. The exact amount of child support varies from case to case but an estimate can be obtained by using the calculator provided by the government.
Additionally, a spousal maintenance payment may be required if, for example, one party has dependants, cannot support themselves financially or if there is a large discrepancy between the income of the two parties.
Can a civil partnership be annulled?
Yes, if strict criteria are met. Annulment or nullity is a legal declaration which states that the civil partnership is null and void and indeed that it never existed.
In this way, it differs from dissolution, which dissolves an existing civil partnership. A nullity application denies that the civil partnership was ever legitimate and as such, never existed in the first place. It will only be granted to civil partnerships which the law deems as void.
How do I qualify for nullity of a civil partnership?
Those wishing to obtain a nullity order for their civil partnership must demonstrate that it is and always has been void. This can be achieved via one of the following grounds:
- where one or both of the parties were incapable of entering into the civil partnership, either by being already involved in another marriage or civil partnership, by being under 16 at the time of the ceremony or by the two parties being too closely related to one another
- where the formal requirements of a civil partnership were not met (such as notifying the registrar or applying through the proper channels)
- where one or both of the parties did not give their consent to the civil partnership. This could occur through duress, error, fraud or misrepresentation, or if one or both of the parties suffered from mental illness at the time of the ceremony.
What is a (Judicial) Separation Order?
(Judicial) separation is a legal contract issued by the court recognising that while the civil partnership is technically still valid, the couple have legally separated. This is most commonly used when the civil partnership is less than a year old (meaning the couple cannot yet apply for dissolution) but they still wish to have legal recognition of the breakdown of their union.
A judicial separation could be challenged by either party at a later date.
How are children affected by ending a civil partnership?
The details of all children in the family must be included on the original dissolution application (Form D8). Ideally, the couple will be able to come to their own arrangements regarding where the child or children will live after the civil partnership has ended and who will be responsible for their day-to-day upbringing, as well as visitation agreements.
However, if an agreement cannot be reached independently, a mediator may help to solve disputes and reach an amicable understanding. If an agreement is still not possible, either party can apply for a Child Arrangements Order under section eight of the Children Act of 1989. Mediation will be a necessary requirement of anyone seeking a Child Arrangements Order.
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