What Is a Civil Union?

A civil union is a legal relationship between two people that provides legal protections only at the state level. A civil union is not a marriage. They do not provide federal protections, benefits, or responsibilities to couples.

Civil unions are not recognized by all states. They are similar to domestic partnerships in some ways. Primarily, states where marriage was unavailable established them as an alternative for same-sex couples.

Same-sex marriage is now legal in all states following the Supreme Court's 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges ruling. But many of these marriages began with civil unions. Some states that legalized same-sex marriage before Obergefell converted civil unions to marriages.

This article provides a brief overview of civil unions.

What Is a Civil Union?

Simply put, a civil union is a legally recognized relationship status. Civil unions provide many of the same protections and benefits as marriage. It's important to remember that these protections and benefits often depend on state law. These laws can vary widely.

In states like California, New Jersey, Hawaii, and Colorado, civil unions or similar arrangements (like registered domestic partnerships) are available to couples. These are not limited to same-sex couples. But many same-sex relationships entered civil unions before the 2015 Supreme Court decision. Opposite-sex couples can also enter civil unions or become registered domestic partners.

So, why would someone choose a civil union over a marriage? Sometimes, it's a personal choice based on the couple's beliefs or circumstances. Other times, it's because they cannot get a marriage license due to their age. Usually, a person must be 18 years of age or older to marry. Some states allow younger people to enter civil unions or domestic partnerships.

Benefits of Civil Unions

One of the major benefits of civil unions and registered domestic partnerships is that they can provide healthcare rights. This means that domestic partners can often make medical decisions for each other. Like married couples, they can cover each other on their health insurance plans.

One of the crucial aspects of civil unions and domestic partnerships is visitation rights. During a hospital visitation, this can be very important. Hospitals sometimes restrict non-family members from visiting. This means that if your partner is in the hospital, you have the same rights as a spouse to visit them. You may be able to make medical decisions on their behalf. This can be a lifesaver in critical situations.

Civil unions also grant legal rights like inheritance rights. This means that if one partner passes away without a will, the other partner has a right to inherit their property. This is similar to what happens with a marriage or common-law marriage.

Bereavement leave is essential as it acknowledges the emotional impact of losing a partner. It provides that partner with the necessary time for grief and adjustment. It's a vital right granted in many relationship recognitions, including civil unions.

Civil Union vs. Marriage

Generally speaking, there are three main differences between civil unions and marriages:

  • Portability: Since all states do not recognize civil unions, such agreements are not always valid when couples cross state lines. For example, Oregon may not recognize a civil union obtained in Maine in the same way.
  • Federal Benefits: States can grant only state rights and benefits to partners in civil unions. There is no right to federal benefits for those in a civil union, regardless of whether it's same-sex or opposite-sex.
  • Terminology: "Marriage" is a term that conveys societal and cultural meaning, which is important to both proponents and opponents of gay marriage. It's less of an issue after the Obergefell ruling since marriage is available to same-sex couples in all states.

Civil Unions Vary State by State

The federal government does not recognize civil unions. It depends on the state. Not every state has a civil union statute on the books. It falls to state legislatures to decide whether to take up the issue. In 1999, Vermont became the first state to enact civil unions to comply with a court ruling. However, each state's definition of a civil union may vary.

In Illinois, a civil union is a legal relationship between two people. Civil unions provide most of the legal obligations, protections, and benefits that the law of Illinois grants to married couples. But an Illinois civil union is not a marriage. A civil union does not provide federal protections or responsibilities otherwise offered to married couples. Examples include Social Security survivors' and spousal benefits, immigration rights associated with marriage, and the right to file joint federal tax returns.

The state of Connecticut began with civil unions and later expanded marriage to include same-sex couples. The state enacted a civil union law in 2005. Then, in 2010, state lawmakers agreed to repeal prior marriage laws and fully replace them with genderless terminology. All references to marriage became fully gender-neutral. Connecticut stopped providing civil unions in 2010. Existing civil unions were automatically converted into marriages. Same-sex marriages, civil unions, and broad domestic partnerships from other jurisdictions are legally treated as marriages in the state.

Many New England states, such as Rhode Island, Vermont, and New Hampshire, initially offered civil unions and later converted them to marriages, following a similar path. For example, in Maine, civil unions were recognized from 2004 until 2012. However, after the state legalized same-sex marriage in 2012, it no longer offered civil unions.

New York and Nevada also recognize these relationships. Some states, like Hawaii, have a unique partnership called a reciprocal beneficiary relationship. This allows two people who cannot get married to still have some of the legal protections and benefits that come with a marriage.

But what a civil union is and whether it continues to exist in its current legal incarnation remains to be seen, particularly since same-sex marriage is now an option in all states. For more information, FindLaw's Same-Sex Marriage section is a constantly updated resource.

Have Additional Questions About Civil Unions? Contact an Attorney

Civil unions were primarily legal workarounds for committed same-sex couples before federal recognition of equal marriage rights. The arrangement has largely lost its value. Navigating the world of civil unions can be complex. Laws differ from state to state, and federal laws add another layer of complexity.

Therefore, it's always a good idea to seek legal advice if you're considering these options. Lawyers can give guidance on domestic partnership law.

Contact a family law attorney in your area.

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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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