Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many couples have been forced to cancel or postpone their plans to get married or enter a civil partnership.  Even with the recent announcement that ceremonies will be permitted in England from 4 July, the restriction to 30 people attending and the concerns about social distancing may still cause couples to decide to delay.

In “normal” circumstances, such a significant life event often serves as motivation to put one’s affairs in order, so as to ensure that loved ones are protected and that assets are held appropriately.  But it is not necessarily always the case that couples should wait until getting married or entering into a civil partnership in order to take such positive steps.  There are several potential issues to consider, and there is benefit in addressing them now, even while the wedding or civil partnership is on hold.

Meanwhile, some couples may even be re-evaluating whether they still want to go ahead with the marriage or civil partnership at all.  It is a question we are often asked by cohabiting couples: romantic and/or religious reasons aside, is it “a good idea” to get married or enter into a civil partnership?

Below, we set out some of the key considerations from an English legal and UK tax perspective, and the steps that all couples should be taking regardless of whether they are (or intend to be) married or in a civil partnership, or not.

Death and succession planning

  • If either party in a couple were to die without a Will whilst not married or in a civil partnership, the survivor would not be automatically entitled to inherit anything under the English intestacy rules.  Spouses and civil partners do have rights under the intestacy rules (depending on the values involved and wider family circumstances), but they do not always match what the deceased’s wishes would have been.
  • Regardless of whether there is a Will in place or not, there is also legislation which permits claims to be made against a deceased person’s estate.  The requirements to be satisfied in order for such a claim to be successful are stricter for cohabitees than for those who are either married or in a civil partnership.  Either way, court proceedings can be expensive and time-consuming, and so should be seen as a last resort.
  • In short, it is not recommended that the intestacy rules or the inheritance claims legislation be relied upon.  Instead, whether married or in a civil partnership or not, it is always advisable to put a suitable, personalised Will in place.
  • Getting married or forming a civil partnership usually revokes a Will, but if a couple is definitely planning to marry or enter into a civil partnership (even if that has been deferred due to Covid-19), and would like their Wills to remain valid afterwards, there is technical wording that can be put in place to achieve this.  This would also require bespoke drafting with alternative options to cover the position (particularly from a tax perspective) if they were to die either before or after getting married or forming the civil partnership.

Relationship breakdown

  • Couples who are neither married nor in a civil partnership do not have any particular rights in the event of relationship breakdown.  Spouses and civil partners, however, are given certain rights and protections on divorce or dissolution of the civil partnership.  Either way, it is often recommended that couples consider cohabitation agreements before moving in together and/or pre- or post-nuptial agreements before getting married or entering into a civil partnership.

Tax considerations

  • Marriage or civil partnership changes how certain tax rules apply to couples during their lifetime.  Many of these rules are generally considered to be advantageous, such as the “marriage allowance” for income tax purposes and, in most cases, the ability to transfer assets between spouses/civil partners without triggering inheritance tax, capital gains tax or, where relevant, the additional 3% rate of stamp duty land tax (SDLT).  Others, however, are somewhat more limiting, such as the treatment of couples who are married or in a civil partnership for the purposes of capital gains tax “private residence relief” and the additional 3% rate of SDLT (under which they are treated as joint purchasers even if they purchase property separately).
  • Marriage or civil partnership also changes the inheritance tax implications on death.  Broadly speaking, in most cases, if a couple is married or in a civil partnership, it is possible to defer the inheritance tax charge until both parties have died so that, as a whole, the estate is only taxed once at 40% before it passes to the couple’s children or other beneficiaries.  If a couple is not married or in a civil partnership, however, the first-to-die’s assets would be subject to the charge twice: once on the first death when passing to the survivor, and then again on the second death when passing from the survivor to the couple’s children or other beneficiaries.  This can also have cashflow implications, when determining the point at which assets would have to be liquidated in order to meet a tax bill.

Practical matters

  • Whether married or in a civil partnership or not, it is worth reviewing how a couple’s assets are held and, if they are held jointly, careful thought should be given to whether they are held as “joint tenancies” or “tenancies in common”.  There are often practical matters to consider, such as ease of access and administration on a day-to-day basis, but the precise ownership arrangements can also have significant longer-term implications for the tax treatment of the assets and how they pass on death.
  • If a couple wants to have the ability to make decisions on each other’s behalf (whether in relation to financial matters, property, their business assets, or healthcare or medical treatments), particularly in the event of loss of capacity, then powers of attorney should be put in place in order to achieve this.  In the absence of appropriate powers of attorney, there is no such automatic right, regardless of whether the couple is married or in a civil partnership or cohabiting or not.
  • Finally, given that any change in relationship status or living arrangements could potentially give rise to new tax implications and/or family dynamics and responsibilities, it may also be necessary to review any insurance policies to ensure that they would pay out when needed to the right individual(s).

If you have any queries about this topic, please contact Wendy Hall, Alison Broadberry or any member of the Private Client team.


Please note that this blog is provided for general information only. It is not intended to amount to advice on which you should rely. You must obtain professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action on the basis of the content of this blog.

Edwin Coe LLP is a Limited Liability Partnership, registered in England & Wales (No.OC326366). The Firm is authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority. A list of members of the LLP is available for inspection at our registered office address: 2 Stone Buildings, Lincoln’s Inn, London, WC2A 3TH. “Partner” denotes a member of the LLP or an employee or consultant with the equivalent standing.

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