The Difference Between a Civil Union and Marriage in Spain

If you’ve landed here, you are probably in a relationship with a Spaniard or European and considering, perhaps for visa purposes, perhaps not, whether doing a civil union, or pareja de hecho or just getting hitched is right for you. Here, I’ll lay out the similarities and differences between the two so you can decide which one is right. It should be established right from the get-go that both will allow you live and work in Spain for five years and obtain permanent residency after that. This is, of course, as long as either you or your partner are from Spain or another EU country.

Pictures in this somewhat dry post and for your viewing pleasure of our pre-wedding, wedding, and post-wedding are mostly from the incredibly talented Lele Pastor. Because being pareja de hecho for six years was awesome, but Spanish weddings are, honestly, la leche. 


1. Divorce or break up

Yes let’s start with the fun stuff right away! God willing you won’t have to think about this, but it is a reality for many couples, and the difference is stark between those in civil unions and those who are married.

Civil unions simply sign a piece of paper dissolving their partnership at their local civilian registry office (registro civil). Marriages need to go through a much longer and more expensive process in the courts, and, in the event you were married in the church, you’ll also need to go through a process with them as well.


2. Money

In a marriage, unless you specifically design a prenup, your money is essentially shared and you’re both expected to use the means you have in order to maintain your shared lifestyle. This means that in the event of divorce, money matters can be messy, unless previously agreed upon. We’ve all seen the movies, we know how it goes.

On the other hand, civil unions do not abide by any laws when it comes to your money, meaning that in the event of a break up, neither one would be entitled to any kind of alimony, unless it was previously agreed upon.  Because of this, it may be suggested that both partners have separate bank accounts. It should be mentioned, however, that if a civil union wants to draw up a kind of pre-nuptial agreement, they can, and it would be honored if it should ever need to be.



3. Special circumstances at the work place

Special permission to be absent from work for example because of maternity or paternity leave, are available for both married couples and civil unions. In addition to this, the days off allowed for serious illness of a family member up to the 2nd degree of kinship are the same in both cases.

Spanish law stipulates 15 days of paid vacation for couples who get married, but not for civil unions.

wedding pic 4
Our actual wedding, in a stale government building five days after the big one!
wedding pic 3
Pints post-ceremony? Claro que sí.

4. Death

Another fun topic! In the event that you or you partner dies, the rights given to the other are also a bit different.

If you are married, you are legally entitled to a widower’s pension as well as part of their inheritance.

As their civil partner, unless it was previously agreed upon through a will or other legal document, you wouldn’t be entitled to any of their inheritance. And in order to get the widow’s pension you need to prove you’ve been living together, uninterrupted for the last five years, and you need to prove you don’t make over a certain amount of money.



5. Kids

Their are not significant differences here, since the child’s birth certificate is enough to prove maternity or paternity of the child, and the rights inherent as their mother or father. As mentioned, both civil partnerships and marriages are allowed the maternity and paternity leave required by law.

In the event of a break up or divorce, if no custody agreement has previously been made, the judge is in charge of deciding the best circumstances for the child, as well as child support, should it be deemed necessary–for both marriages and civil unions.

If we refer back to the inheritance topic from above, it should be mentioned that in the event of the death of one partner, if they are not married, the surviving partner does not inherit their money by defect. In this case it would be the children.

Spanish law has changed to allow civil unions to adopt children just as married couples do.


6. Taxes

To end on a fun note, let’s talk about taxes. Not much to mention here, just that civil partnerships may not file taxes jointly, while married couples can. Married couples are not obligated to, though, and some may find that filing jointly actually doesn’t benefit them. (It didn’t benefit me this year!)



All in all, deciding to become pareja de hecho or simply get married is a very personal decision. If you’re a bit nervous about going all out and getting married right away, becoming pareja de hecho may be the perfect option as it doesn’t imply much legal intertwined-ness but yet still gives you certain benefits for example, work and residency permission in Spain, as well as certain benefits in the event you or your partner fall seriously ill. Happy relationship-ing no matter what you choose!

12 thoughts on “The Difference Between a Civil Union and Marriage in Spain

  1. Thank you for writing so many amazing articles! I’m American and my boyfriend is Spanish and we are looking into what our next step will be. It is so great hear from someone who has gone through it! Love all of your articles and content—OMG you nailed that “Spanish Wedding Experience”, so relatable I laughed the whole way through!


  2. Thank you so much for creating this blog – it’s super helpful! I’m British and my partner is Spanish and we’re both currently living in the UK with plans of moving to Spain next year. We want to get married in the future, but we’re not sure whether to go down the PDH route first. I was actually under the impression that once obtaining PDH that you couldn’t change this to marriage further down the line, so it’s great to see that you’ve done it! Is this a difficult process to convert? Thanks again!


    1. Hi Adam! No, not at all. In fact, if I remember correctly, it doesn’t really matter if you were PdH beforehand or not, the documents you need are the same. As the foreigner, my residence permit and card did not change either. I feel like PdH is “low risk” enough that even if you aren’t ready for marriage you can still get your residency with pdh. Hope that helps!


  3. Hi Emily! Thank you so much for creating this, it was very helpful.
    I was wondering which process is faster? I’ve heard that marriage takes longer to process?
    I’m looking to get residency afterwards so we will do whichever is quicker.

    Thank you!


    1. Hi Lara! To be honest I don’t remember but I think you could be right. In both cases it requires a lot of leg work on your end to get the documents necessary from the States with apostilles and translations. Then you apply at registro civil (if you wanna get married) and they tell you all the docs they need and give you another date to bring them all back and then they give you another date to come back with a witness (doesn’t matter who just has to be over 18), and THEN they give you possible dates for your actual wedding. This is if you’re doing it not with the church. I don’t remember the difference between this and the church but the first steps are the same. Catholics will make you do confirmation class though, if you haven’t been confirmed, as well as “marriage counseling” before marrying you. The pareja de hecho process is probably easier and slightly quicker but I honestly couldn’t confirm that, especially in the current climate. I hope this helps a little bit!!


  4. Hi your article is very informative,would i know if there is a province that doesn’t require a cohabitation for certain months/year? My partner is a Bolivian and a resident of Spain but working in Geneve and I am a Filipino living in the Philippines,we want to do pareja de hecho when i go visit her as a tourist,would it be possible?Thanknyou in advance


  5. Hi your article is very informative,would i know if there is a province that doesn’t require a cohabitation for certain months/year? My partner is a Bolivian and a resident of Spain but working in Geneve and I am a Filipino living in the Philippines,we want to do pareja de hecho when i go visit her as a tourist,would it be possible?Thanknyou in advance


    1. Hi there! This is a very complicated question, because it seems your partner is not a citizen of any EU country, but rather just a Spanish resident? If this is the case, i dont think you would be able to do it!


  6. Thank you so much for this! So helpful! Do you know if there are time limits on PdH? I heard somewhere that you have to renew it every 5 years… is that true? I live in Andalusia with my partner and am SO glad to have found this blog! Thanks in advance for your reply, Emily!


    1. Hi Brooke! Welcome! So glad you’ve found it all helpful. No, pdh does not expire. Its just that after 5 years you need to renew the residency card. What you have now, (if you have your tarjeta comunitaria after getting pdh), is something like a “temporary” card. After 5 years you just need to renew it to the permanent one. You’ll need to fill out a form, bring a copy of your current card, as well as something that establishes your relationship to the EU member–in this case your PDH paper, and maybe a few other things im missing but nothing like applying the first time when you needed your birth certificate and all that jazz. Once you get the card renewed, you don’t have to do it again for ten years, and then its only a formality, like renewing a DNI–no big paperwork (or so i’m told!) Hope this helps!


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