1999: Civil Unions in Vermont

In 1999, Vermont became a trailblazer in public policy when it introduced the idea of a civil union. This concept provided a legal relationship like civil marriage. Instead, though, it was offered only to same-sex couples. 

Over time, many other states considered similar concepts, including New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. But it all started in Vermont.

The Vermont Supreme Court handed down its crucial decision in Baker v. State (1999). This ruling held that same-sex couples must be granted certain rights and protections. Further, these rights and protections had to be the same as those heterosexual couples receive under state law. The court instructed the state legislature to decide how to grant these benefits and protections. But it didn't require the state to allow same-sex couples to be legally married. The solution was to create a separate but equal process, at least at the state level.

Thus, civil unions in Vermont were born. The concept allowed same-sex couples to receive the same state benefits and legal protections of marriage. Federal marriage equality would come later. Civil unions were eventually replaced with marriage. The following is a brief history of civil unions in Vermont.

The Civil Union Is Born

In 2000, the year after Baker, the state passed a bill allowing same-sex couples to enter into civil unions. Town clerks were authorized to give licenses to same-sex couples for these unions in the same way they would give out marriage licenses. Same-sex couples could be joined in civil union by anyone authorized to perform marriages under state law. They would have to divorce under state law in the same way heterosexual couples would.

Same-sex couples in civil unions in Vermont were entitled to all the benefits available under state law to married couples, such as medical decisions and estate inheritance. Those benefits also included overseeing burials, transferring properties, and certain tax breaks. Employers were required to treat civil union couples in the same way they treated other married couples. This meant in matters including health benefits and marital status discrimination law. It also included worker's compensation benefits and taxation. Finally, it included family leave benefits and wage assignment laws.

The birth of the civil union in Vermont came after a court ruling. The state's highest court declared that same-sex couples should have the same legal rights as opposite-sex couples. In response, legislators put the new law on the books, creating a civil union license. With this license, civil union partners were recognized under state law. They had the rights that domestic partners in other places could only dream of enjoying.

Civil union partners in Vermont enjoyed various legal protections. They had the right to hospital visitation and were considered next of kin in health care decisions. Additionally, they had benefits in areas like Social Security and income tax that had been exclusive to married couples. They could even settle child custody disputes in family court.

Civil Union Replaced by Same-Sex Marriage

The Vermont civil union bill was a landmark in the fight over gay marriage. For the first time, a state allowed gay couples to have all the same benefits as married couples under state law. In 2009, Vermont went one step further and became the fourth state to approve same-sex marriage. The civil union is no longer available in Vermont, but any civil union entered into before Sept. 1, 2009, is still honored.

Civil unions and the similar domestic partnership option are still offered in some states, such as Colorado, even though same-sex marriage is now legal at the federal level. Civil unions are also still available in Hawaii, Illinois, and New Jersey. Oregon and Nevada provide broad domestic partnership benefits.

Same-sex marriage laws continuously changed up until the U.S. Supreme Court's 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision. And since marriage is no longer restricted to just heterosexual couples, the relevance of both civil unions and domestic partnerships likely will wane.

Despite the revolutionary introduction of the civil union, its status in Vermont was only temporary. When Massachusetts became the first state to recognize same-sex marriage, the conversation shifted. Vermont then transformed its public policy again, replacing the civil union law with a same-sex marriage law. The civil union certificate was no longer issued. Instead, couples received marriage certificates.

As time passed, other states like Connecticut and New York followed suit. Federal law eventually recognized the rights of same-sex couples as well.

Getting Married (and Divorced) in Vermont: The Basics

For couples in Vermont eager to tie the knot, it's essential to understand the basics. First, you need to obtain a marriage license from the clerk's office. After the ceremony, the legal relationship is sealed with a marriage certificate. Should the relationship not work out, just as with any other marriage, couples should seek dissolution in a family court.

The eligibility requirements and processes for marriage in Vermont are the same, regardless of sexual orientation or gender:

If you're in a civil union and wish to split up, you must ask the court for a civil union dissolution. The process is similar to a traditional divorce but uses slightly different forms and different terminology. There are additional requirements for nonresidents seeking a civil union dissolution. The legal rights and processes, from assets to child custody, follow traditional rules.

Have Questions About Same-Sex Marriage in Vermont? An Attorney Can Help

While civil unions in Vermont are a thing of the past except for existing unions, marriage is no longer restricted to just opposite-sex couples. Still, every situation is different, and you may have questions about your civil union or related matters.

Consider speaking with an experienced family law attorney near you for expert help.

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