Have the recent changes to the Civil Partnership Act gone far enough?

Posted by Ben Coulson on
My colleague James Davies has written an excellent article on the recent changes to Civil Partnerships that can be found here. The step taken by the Government to extend Civil Partnerships to heterosexual couples is obviously a big one – but – does it go far enough?

The current position is that Marriage and Civil Partnerships are now available to heterosexual couples, homosexual couples and platonic friends. But what about siblings and other caring relationships, like mother and daughter? Currently, siblings and other descendants are not allowed to register as civil partners and as such are not eligible for the associated tax advantages. So from where has this particular line of argument emanated?

The issue was initially raised in 2005 by the sisters Joyce and Sybil Burden, both of whom were in their 80s and who claimed that they should enjoy the same tax advantages as a lesbian couple. The basis for their argument centred on the Burden's family home, which had been passed down to them from their parents and where the two of them resided and cared for each other. The main concern for the Burdens was that if one of them were to die, the property would have to be sold in order to pay inheritance tax. This would mean that the survivor would lose the family home and have a reduced pot from which to buy a replacement home. The Burdens took their case to the European Court of Human Rights, but their efforts to become recognised as civil partners ultimately failed.

Although the Burdens' case was ultimately unsuccessful, there have been numerous subsequent cases which have brought to light this particular argument. The most recent high profile case is that of the Utleys. Again, these are two sisters who have lived together for over 25 years and who care for each other. In circumstances very similar to the Burden case, the Utleys bought a flat in London, which they both live in and which has increased significantly in value over the years. Currently, when one of the sisters dies, the flat will have to be sold in order to pay inheritance tax.  This case has put the argument as to whether siblings should be treated as partners firmly in the spotlight, as high profile MPs and representatives from the House of Lords have called for siblings to enjoy the same rights as partners; something which has been embodied in a bill put forward by Lord Lexden. Under Lord Lexden's proposal, both siblings would have to be aged 30 or over and have lived together continuously for 12 years. Although initially rejected, following a wave of support from other members of the House of Lords, the bill is due to be read a second time and I have no doubt will be followed with keen interest. 

Despite there being a growing number of influential people promoting this particular argument, there are still strong dissenters who ask if co-habiting siblings are afforded the same rights under the Civil Partnership Act, including exempting them from inheritance tax, then where is the line drawn? The argument raises a lot of further questions, however, the underlying issue as to whether siblings should be afforded the same rights as partners is an interesting one and is gaining traction. Watch this space.

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Ben Coulson is a private client lawyer specialising in wills, probate administration, tax and trusts.

Ben Coulson
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