What is a civil partnership?

In England and Wales, civil partnerships have been available to same-sex couples since 2004, and opposite-sex couples since 2018.

Registering a civil partnership gives your relationship legal recognition, giving you added legal rights and responsibilities as a couple.

Whether you've already tied the knot or are considering making things official, here we will look at just some of those legal rights. In particular, we’ll look at your rights in relation to any defined benefit pensions schemes you may be a member of.

Bear in mind the information below does not constitute financial advice. It is not a comprehensive guide to your pension rights, but it does provide examples that show the complex and changing nature of pensions and related legislation.

Who can enter into a civil partnership?

Any couple in England or Wales can now register a civil partnership as long as:

  • You are both 18 or over (or 16 if you both have parental consent)
  • You have lived in the same area in England or Wales for at least seven days
  • Neither of you is already either a civil partner, or married
  • You are not close blood relatives

Since the introduction of civil partnerships, the rights of same-sex couples to enter into marriage were extended in 2014.

Your rights when living and working abroad

Opposite-sex marriage is recognised as a legally binding agreement across the world. Some countries however, still don't recognise civil partnerships or same-sex marriages. 

If you choose to live or work abroad, you'll need to understand how your status is recognised in the country you're planning to move to.

This could affect your rights in a number of ways. It could have an impact on your finances as a couple, and even affect your status as the legal parents or guardians of any children you have together.

Defined benefit pensions - survivor benefits

The pension rights of those in same-sex civil partnerships or marriages was the subject of much debate following the case of Walker v. Innospec Limited and others in 2017.

Mr Walker worked for Innospec Limited for over 20 years and was a member of their defined benefit pension scheme. He had been living with his male partner since 1993. In 2006 they entered into a civil partnership and then later married.

In terms of the survivor pension benefits that would be paid to his partner, Mr Walker’s pension scheme only took into account his pensionable service from 5th December 2005 (the date on which the Civil Partnership Act 2004 came into force).

This is in line with many defined benefit pension schemes which rely on an exception in the Equalities Act 2010:

"A person does not contravene this Part of this Act, so far as relating to sexual orientation, by doing anything which prevents or restricts a person who is not married from having access to a benefit, facility or service - (a) the right to which accrued before 5th December 2005 (the day on which section 1 of the Civil Partnership Act 2004 came into force), or (b) which is payable in respect of periods of service before that date."

Mr. Walker argued that his husband's survivor pension would be significantly smaller than if he were married to a woman. The Supreme Court found in favour of Mr Walker.

What was the impact of the ruling?

In the case of Walker v Innospec Limited, the Supreme Court ruled that people in a civil partnership or same-sex marriage must benefit from the same pension rights as those in an opposite-sex marriage.

In March 2018, the government wrote to public service pension scheme representatives about the Supreme Court judgment. The necessary regulatory changes were then taken forward by the departments responsible for each scheme.

It means that in defined benefit schemes like the Teacher’s Pension Scheme and the NHS Pension Scheme, a surviving civil partner now has the same rights as a surviving spouse.

Goodwin v Secretary of State for Education

A later legal case involving the Teachers’ Pension Scheme has seen further progress in the quest for pension rights equality.

In Goodwin v the Secretary of State for Education, the tribunal found that the scheme’s rules could lead to discrimination in two ways. It found that on the death of a scheme member:

  • A woman in a same-sex marriage might receive more than a woman in a civil partnership or opposite-sex marriage
  • Male survivors of a female spouse or partner could in some instances receive lower benefits than female survivors

As a result of the ruling, changes to the scheme were introduced to ensure equal benefits in both circumstances, with retrospective effect from 1st April 2019.

The state pension - survivor benefits

In terms of the state pension, the survivor of a same-sex marriage or civil partnership is treated the same as a man whose wife has died, regardless of their gender.

A surviving civil partner may also be able to inherit part of the late partner’s additional state pension if the civil partnership with them began before 6th April 2016, and one of the following applies:

  • your partner reached the State Pension age before 6th April 2016
  • your partner died before 6th April 2016, but would have reached State Pension age on or after that date

Note that you wouldn’t be able to inherit anything if you were to remarry or form a new civil partnership before you reach State Pension age.

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