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Civil Unions vs. Marriage

A civil union is an arrangement available in several states which has important distinctions from marriage. Akin to a marriage, a civil union was created to allow same-sex couples a way to publicly commit to each other without quite granting them permission to marry. Some states, such as Vermont, converted all civil unions to marriages after legalizing same-sex marriage. Often and with some exceptions, civil unions can provide couples the same kinds of benefits and protections that marriages do.

In general, however, civil unions (and domestic partnerships to some extent) are less relevant since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage bans were unconstitutional in 2015 (Obergefell v. Hodges). Nevertheless, marriage and LGBTQ+ issues remain hotly controversial in the United States. There are also many people who remain in civil unions or domestic partnerships despite the accessibility of same-sex marriage.

For these reasons, the distinctions between marriage and civil unions may still produce legal issues. The following civil unions vs. marriage comparison will help you understand these issues.

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

States that have civil unions generally extend to couples all of the same rights and responsibilities as married couples. Prior to Obergefell, many same-sex couples opted into civil unions, when marriage was not an option for accessing any of the kinds of resources marriages provided opposite-sex couples.

All of that being said, 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 automatically been converted to a marriage.

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

  • Inheritance rights or the right to automatically inherit from 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
  • 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 a dissolution of the civil union

It's important to recognize, however, that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) doesn't recognize civil unions in the same way that it does marriages on federal income tax filings and returns. As a result, if you're in a civil union, you must indicate on your federal income filings that you are single, head of household, or a qualified widow or widower.

Civil Unions vs. Marriage: How They're Different

The main differences between marriages and civil unions concern how those unions are treated by other states and the federal government. Marriage law is decided by the states but has implications in federal law. Spouses can file taxes jointly and have rights to each other's Social Security and Medicaid benefits.

Civil unions, on the other hand, aren't recognized under federal law -- unless they've been converted to marriages.

Thus, couples in civil unions don't have Social Security entitlement benefits through their partners, individuals in a civil union with federal employees don't have access to federal employee benefits, and civil union partners of foreign nationals can't submit family-based immigration petitions. If you're in a same-sex civil union, you can now seek a marriage license in any state and become eligible for benefits.

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. The same applies for all other states.

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, get personalized legal advice, and better understand your legal rights.

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