Children & Family
For people with children, the most positive aspect of civil partnership may be symbolic. Children benefit from their family situation being affirmed, and an officially recognised civil partnership could do a lot to validate their family and help counter the homophobia they encounter. It may encourage their schools, extended families etc to take their parents’ relationship and their family unit more seriously. As well as housing, pension, bereavement benefit, tax, insurance, and other rights conferred by civil partnership (see www.olrni.gov.uk), the direct legal benefits of importance to families are mostly in inheritance, employment, immigration, protection from domestic violence, Child Support and maintenance.
Employment: This is an area where civil partnership will confer more rights to your family. Because your employer will have to treat you in the same way as it treats married partners, check out their policies on spouses and step-children, they will apply to you.
Flexible working hours are available to parents and their partners living with them, gay or straight, regardless of marital status. People are entitled to ask for flexible working hours to take care of any children under six or disabled children under eighteen regardless of whether they have parental responsibility, although employers have the right to refuse if they can justify their decision. You do not need civil partnership to activate this right, although it might strengthen your case in a dispute. Statutory ‘Paternity’ and Adoption Leave and Pay already also apply to same sex couples and do not require civil partnership. For extended ‘Paternity’ leave, you may have to prove parental responsibility. For other employment rights, check out www.olrni.gov.uk
Inheritance: In the same way as step-children, children in a ‘civil partnership family’ will have the same claims whether or not they are biological children of the deceased parent. The important definition in inheritance is ‘children of the family’, and it includes step-children from past relationships.
Immigration: If you are a UK or Irish citizen or a citizen of the European Union, you can bring your non-European civil partner and dependants to live with you here you will have to support your non-European partner and children without recourse to public funds for the first years, and your partner is not automatically entitled to work. If you don’t have a civil partnership, you may still be able to bring your partner over but it is not an automatic right and you may have to go through a lengthy process. People with dual British/Irish nationality used to be encouraged to sponsor their partner using their Irish nationality as it gave the family more rights (as the family of an EEA worker), but a recent change in the law means that this is not possible anymore, except in limited cases. In any case, you should seek legal advice as immigration involves complex issues. Law Centre (NI), some Citizens Advice Bureaux, NICEM, some independent advice agencies and some solicitors will be able to help, or they will refer you to someone who can.
Protection from domestic violence: Civil partners, former civil partners and other same-sex cohabiting couples will have the same rights as spouses. This of course has implications for the protection of children, for example in non-molestation orders or exclusion requirements (which can ensure the abusive adult is removed from the home, rather than the child). For more details on this, check out www.olrni.gov.uk, civil partnership guidance.
Child Support: If splitting up, the non-resident parent will be liable for Child Support for children who were born as part of a civil partnership, but not for her non-biological children born from a past relationship. Maintenance: There will be a duty to provide reasonable maintenance for your ex-partner and children of the partnership, which can be argued through the courts. Arguably, unlike child support, this should not involve only children born in the civil partnership, but it is still unclear. Other benefits stem from the fact that civil partnership would make the relationship between non-biological parent and children more ‘official’ and therefore make it easier to have a moral claim if there are disputes. However, it confers no actual legal right in these areas.
Examples would be:
- to strengthen a will which says that your partner would like you to be the legal guardian of the child in case of death;
- to have a stronger claim to visiting rights or custody if splitting up;
- to be treated as ‘next of kin’ when dealing with doctors, hospitals etc, although the definition of ‘next of kin’ is not a legal one, and parental responsibility is the important issue when dealing with children, whether it is education or children’s upbringing or important medical decisions.
Civil partnership does not resolve issues like parental responsibility or the right to adopt. These are dealt with under the Children Order (NI) and adoption legislation respectively.
Under the Children Order, you are entitled to apply for a residence order for your non-biological child (even if the child was born in a past relationship) which gives you parental responsibility as long as you still live under the same roof. You can also apply for a contact order if splitting up. This is valid even for couples who are not in a civil partnership, but civil partners can apply for parental responsibility rather than a residence order. In Northern Ireland, unlike England and Wales, you have to apply to a County Court, which means the decision belongs to social workers and judges, and you should be aware that this may put your family in the public domain as far as the media is concerned. Unlike in marriage, a civil partner is not automatically assumed to be the parent of her non-biological child born within the civil partnership (an obvious inequality which it may be possible to challenge in future). Adoption: The law does not currently allow gay people to adopt as a couple. Gay people can apply as individuals. If in a couple, both partners will be assessed together but only one person will be the adoptive parent. Adoption legislation is being reviewed by the Department of Health and Social Services and new legislation is expected in 2006/07. The review specifically mentions the need to take into account the Civil Partnership Act. For more details, check: http://www.dhsspsni.gov.uk/childcare/adoption-strategy.asp.
Child Benefit: Only or eldest children receive a higher rate of Child Benefit. Say you are two women living together, each one with one or more biological children. Before 5 December 05, you have each been receiving the only or eldest child rate for your first-born. From that date, you are expected to declare your relationship to the Child Benefit Office (again, regardless of whether you enter a civil partnership or not). As a couple you will only receive this rate for the eldest of your ‘combined’ children, and the Child Benefit Office will decide which one of you will receive the benefit. If you have both claimed Child Benefit so far, you can choose re keep claiming separately. You could decide instead that the partner doing most of the childcare or working part-time or on a lower income claims Child Benefit. This is because claiming Child Benefit protects your state pension from suffering from career breaks or drops of income related to having childcare responsibilities.