Civil Unions

Civil unions are similar to marriage. They extend many of the same state benefits, civil rights, and legal protections. Examples include joint property ownership and adoption. Civil unions are not limited to same-sex couples.

This section includes a comparison of civil unions to marriage and domestic partnerships. This section also contains a brief history of civil unions in the United States.

The History of Civil Unions

Civil unions have a rich history and are an important aspect of family law. Civil unions are legally recognized relationships. They provide some of the same legal rights and responsibilities as marriage. This offered an alternative for same-sex relationships before same-sex marriage was legal. Civil unions also offered state recognition for opposite-sex couples who chose not to marry.

Vermont Paves the Way

Vermont was responsible for establishing the concept of a civil union. Vermont introduced the first legislation, providing it as an option for same-sex couples. In 1999, the Hawaiian Supreme Court refused to recognize same-sex marriages. That same year, the Vermont Supreme Court handed down a decision stating that same-sex couples should be afforded the same benefits and protections that heterosexual couples receive under state law. The following year the state legislature passed a bill authorizing same-sex couples to enter a "civil union." Although not termed “marriage," civil unions share many features of marriage.

Applicants could apply with the town clerk for a license just as with a marriage license. Anyone authorized to perform marriages under state law would then perform a ceremony. Vermont's law was a landmark event in the fight over same-sex marriage. Several other states introduced laws similar to Vermont's. Eventually, however, Vermont decided to do away with civil unions and, in 2009, approved same-sex marriage. Civil unions are no longer available in Vermont, though civil unions created before 2009 are still acknowledged by the state.

Other States Follow

In the United States, civil unions are known as “domestic partnerships" in many states. Other states, like Hawaii, use the term “reciprocal beneficiaries." These terms essentially describe two adults in a committed relationship who choose to live together. Typically, to establish such a union, the individuals need to be 18 years of age or older. However, this age varies by jurisdiction.

California was among the first steps to adopt a domestic partnership law. This extended many legal rights and responsibilities to registered domestic partners. Many states adopted similar laws in the following years. New Jersey, for instance, instituted civil unions in 2007. Washington and Oregon followed suit in 2007 and 2008, respectively. Illinois, Colorado, and Nevada also enacted domestic partnership laws.

The District of Columbia, along with many municipalities in states like New York and Wisconsin, offers domestic partnership registrations. These registrations have varying levels of legal rights and protections. Some of these municipalities allow any two adults in a committed relationship to register as domestic partners. Others restrict eligibility to same-sex couples or opposite-sex couples of a certain age. Typically, the process involves signing an affidavit in the presence of a notary and filing it with the city clerk or secretary of state.

Civil Unions v. Marriage

Civil unions share many of the rights and responsibilities that exist in a marriage, including:

  • Inheritance rights
  • Bereavement leave
  • Mutual rights to employee benefits such as health insurance
  • Automatic designation as next-of-kin
  • Visitation rights in the hospital
  • Ability to make medical decisions or critical health care decisions on behalf of your partner
  • Joint ownership of property and community property rights
  • Joint tax filing
  • Joint parental rights (if in the best interests of the child)
  • The right not to testify against your partner
  • The right to seek financial support or alimony upon dissolution of the relationship

Differences in state law were more important before the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision by the Supreme Court. This decision made same-sex marriage available in every state. Since Obergefell, marriage has been an option for same-sex couples throughout the U.S. Many reasons for making civil unions available are moot. The Supreme Court eliminated differences between federal and state law. The Supreme Court's order in Obergefell held that states must provide equal protection to same-sex couples.

It remains to be seen whether civil unions will remain available indefinitely, given the new availability of marriage for all. Some civil unions may persist from the period before the legalization of same-sex marriage. It is uncertain why a civil union might be necessary moving forward.

Get Legal Help With Civil Unions

If you need help obtaining a civil union or domestic partnership, you should speak with a legal professional. Attorneys can provide valuable legal advice about your situation. They can also review court rules and federal law with you. They can help you obtain the legal relationship status that fits your situation. If needed, they can also help you terminate a domestic partnership.

Talk to a family law attorney today.

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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

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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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