Which States Have Civil Unions?

A civil union is a legal relationship between two people that provides some protection to the couple. However, civil unions aren't exactly the same as marriages. Civil unions don't provide all the same federal protections, benefits, or responsibilities to couples.

Civil unions were mostly phased out in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2015 decision. This decision legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. The Respect for Marriage Act was also passed by Congress in 2022. Before this ruling, civil unions were introduced specifically for same-sex couples. The law denied the institution to these couples who wanted to get married.

Most states have stopped providing civil unions. Or they have automatically converted existing civil unions to marriages. However, civil unions are still offered in a few states. The following is a summary of the history of civil unions and which states still make them available.

Civil Unions and Same-Sex Marriage: Judicial History

Vermont created the first civil union law in 2000. This came after the Vermont Supreme Court's Baker v. State decision. This decision held that same-sex couples must have the same benefits and protections as opposite-sex couples. At the time, it was a radical political move to allow same-sex couples the right to join a civil union. In just a few years, however, more and more states began to allow the practice. But they also went even further by legalizing same-sex marriage. Currently, civil unions are not available in Vermont, as same-sex couples are now permitted to marry. However, any civil union established prior to September 1, 2009 is still recognized.

Same-sex union laws changed frequently before the Supreme Court's 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges ruling. Before that, the Supreme Court's landmark U.S. v. Windsor decision in 2013 held that those in a same-sex marriage are entitled to federal benefits. This overturned key parts of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). However, this ruling had no effect on couples in a civil union.

Although the terms have sometimes been interchanged, civil unions should not be confused with domestic partnerships. Civil unions provide all the state benefits of marriage. Domestic partnerships have typically been more limited. They are not as targeted to same-sex couples.

States That Currently Have Civil Unions

The list of states that allow civil unions (as distinct from marriage) stands at four:

  • New Jersey: New Jersey first introduced civil unions in 2007. The state's civil union law granted same-sex couples access to all the benefits and responsibilities of marriage. This includes health care decision-making and health insurance coverage.
  • Illinois: Illinois started offering civil unions in 2011. This allowed both same-sex and opposite-sex couples to legally validate their relationship. Once the state legalized same-sex marriage, those in civil unions had the option to convert their union to a marriage. However, this did not happen automatically.
  • Hawaii: Hawaii is known for its unique reciprocal beneficiary relationships. These relationships allow two people who cannot marry to receive certain legal benefits.
  • Colorado: Colorado recognizes both civil unions and domestic partnerships.

States like Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island once offered civil unions. They have since replaced them with marriage. Similarly, all other states have converted all civil unions to legal marriages. Some states like Maine, Nevada, and New York recognize out-of-state civil unions. However, they don't offer them statewide.

Other states, like Wisconsin and Arizona, recognize some form of domestic partnerships. California was also one of the first states to offer a domestic partnership system. In 2007, after a court ruling, Oregon began recognizing registered domestic partnerships. This law allows same-sex couples to become registered domestic partners. Also, opposite-sex couples can register if at least one party is 62 years of age or older.

In states like Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, and Ohio, there are no statewide domestic partner benefits. There is no statewide legal recognition of civil unions. However, some jurisdictions within these states might offer certain benefits to domestic partners. For example, in Florida, Broward County and Palm Beach County extend benefits to domestic partners.

However, it's important to note that even if a state recognizes civil unions or domestic partnerships, the federal government may not. This can affect things like social security and other federal benefits. For example, a domestic partner may not be eligible for spousal social security benefits.

For a full list of state law summaries, visit FindLaw's State Laws: Domestic Partnerships page.

State Bans and Local Ordinances

Prior to the Obergefell ruling, 13 states had laws on the books banning same-sex marriages or civil unions, all of which the Court overturned. Even some cities and municipalities dove into the debate by passing local same-sex marriage ordinances (all of which are now void).

The civil union law passed in Illinois illustrates statutes in other states. In Illinois, a civil union is a legal relationship between two people. Civil unions provide most of the obligations, protections, and benefits that the law grants to married couples.

Making a Commitment? Talk to an Attorney Before You Enter Into a Civil Union or Marriage

With the rise of civil unions and the legalization of same-sex marriage, the laws relating to personal relationships have been in flux. To get up-to-date legal advice, you should speak to an attorney. They can advise you about domestic partnership law and your legal rights. They can help you obtain a certain legal status for your relationship. Lawyers can also help you navigate the marriage laws of your state.

Speak with a family law attorney today.

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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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