Civil Unions vs. Marriage

Civil unions were created to allow same-sex couples a way to commit to each other — without quite permitting them to marry. Civil unions were recognized under state law. After same-sex marriages were legalized across the nation, civil unions became somewhat obsolete.

Civil unions and domestic partnerships are less relevant after Obergefell v. Hodges (2015). This Supreme Court ruling held that same-sex marriage bans are unconstitutional. Yet, marriage and LGBTQ+ issues remain hotly contested in the United States. Despite the accessibility of same-sex marriage, many people remain in civil unions.

The differences between marriage and civil unions may raise legal issues. The following article will help you understand the differences between these legal relationships.

Civil Unions vs. Marriage: How They're the Same

Civil unions generally give couples the same rights and responsibilities as married couples. Before Obergefell, many same-sex couples entered into civil unions. Marriage was not an option like it was for opposite-sex couples. So, civil unions allowed these couples to access some of the benefits of marriage.

Today, many states have since stopped issuing civil unions in light of Obergefell. The main difference is that civil unions don't entitle partners to federal benefits unless the union has been automatically converted to a marriage, which happened in some states.

Civil unions bring with them the following benefits and legal protections:

  • Inheritance rights as a beneficiary of your spouse after they die
  • Bereavement leave to mourn for your spouse
  • Eligibility for your spouse's employment benefits, including health insurance and pensions
  • Automatic designation as next-of-kin by medical professionals to handle healthcare decisions
  • Joint ownership of property
  • Community property rights (if you're in a community property state)
  • Joint state tax filings on your state tax returns
  • Joint parental rights over children born to or adopted by the couple
  • Right not to testify against your civil union partner
  • Right to seek financial support or alimony after the dissolution of the civil union
  • Spousal privilege (in some jurisdictions)

The IRS doesn't recognize civil unions on federal income tax returns. In a civil union, you must state that you are single on your federal income filings. Or you can say you are the head of household or a qualified widow/er.

How Is a Civil Union Different From Marriage?

States and the federal government treat marriages and civil unions differently. States decide marriage law. But, there may be implications for federal law. Spouses can file taxes jointly. They have rights to each other's Social Security and Medicaid benefits.

Federal law does not recognize civil unions unless the unions have been converted to marriage. So, couples in civil unions don't have Social Security entitlement benefits through their partners. People in a civil union with federal employees cannot access federal employee benefits. Civil union partners of foreign nationals can't submit family-based immigration petitions.

You can seek a marriage license in any state if you're in a same-sex civil union. You can become eligible for benefits. This follows the Obergefell court ruling. This case held the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage to be unconstitutional. This has effectively made civil unions obsolete in many jurisdictions. Same-sex couples can now enter legal marriages.

Keep in mind that all states must recognize marriages performed out-of-state. For example, if you were married in Connecticut, you would also be recognized as legally married in New York. Likewise, if a couple marries in Illinois, their marriage is recognized in California, Colorado, or Hawaii. If a couple marries in New Jersey, they're also married in Vermont and Wisconsin. The same applies to all other states.

What's the Difference Between Civil Unions and Domestic Partnerships?

Civil unions and domestic partnerships are both legal arrangements. They give unmarried couples some of the legal rights and protections of marriage. However, there are some key differences between them.

States recognize Domestic partnerships. Domestic partners are two people who live together and share a domestic life but are not married. Domestic partners can be of the same or opposite sex. They typically enter this arrangement to access certain legal rights and protections. This might include healthcare benefits or the ability to make medical decisions for each other.

Domestic partnerships are typically granted fewer rights than civil unions. Domestic partnerships often do not provide the same recognition as a legal union. Civil unions have been widely replaced by same-sex marriage, which grants full and equal recognition under the law.

Need Help With a Civil Union or Marriage? Talk to an Attorney

Marriages, civil unions, and relationship-related benefits are increasingly common subjects of litigation. A lawyer can help you understand the legal status of your relationship and the associated rights and obligations in your state.

Contact a local family law attorney to discuss your relationship status. You can get personalized legal advice and better understand your legal rights.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Property and financial issues in domestic partnerships can be challenging
  • Attorneys can draft a cohabitation agreement to solve any concerns
  • You may need legal help with property division and child custody

Get tailored advice about the domestic partnership laws in your state. Many attorneys offer free consultations.

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Don't Forget About Estate Planning

People in a domestic partnership should create or change their estate planning forms. Take the time to add new beneficiaries (including your partner!) to your will. Consider creating a power of attorney to ensure your partner can access your financial accounts. Also, a health care directive lets your partner make your medical decisions if you ever become incapacitated.

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