Marriage is a specific type of legal status that is given to a couple by a state government. Regardless of where the marriage is issued it should be recognized by every state and nation around the world, though there may be some exceptions. 

Generally speaking, marriage is desirable because it provides several unique rights, protections, and obligations at both the state and federal level for both spouses. These can include benefits regarding taxes, property ownership, and other subject matter. Marriage for same-sex couples became legal in 2015 after an important U.S. Supreme Court decision, meaning that it is now an option for both heterosexual and homosexual couples who wish to get married. 

What are Civil Unions?

A civil union is another type of legal status that often provides many of the same protections as marriage does to couples. However, these protections are only available at the state level, and not at the federal level. Federal protections such as certain tax breaks and social security benefits are unavailable to those who are joined by a civil union. 

As of September 2019, civil unions are currently only available in four states: Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, and New Jersey. Older civil unions are also recognized in Vermont. Hawaii also allows for a similar relationship status known as “reciprocal beneficiaries”.

What are Domestic Partnerships?

A domestic partnership is yet another legal status that gives some of the rights of marriage. Many states have made domestic partnerships available to certain groups and classifications of people. Typically, domestic partnerships allow couples to enjoy the rights and responsibilities that are somewhat limited compared to those granted to couples in a marriage.

As of September 2019, California, D.C., Maine, Nevada, Washington and Wisconsin are the only states that allow couples to obtain domestic partnerships.

What are Some Differences between Marriage, Civil Unions, and Domestic Partnerships?

There are significant differences between the benefits and responsibilities of marriage, civil unions, and domestic partnerships. People who are married usually enjoy more benefits than those in alternative arrangements. These may include:

  • Legal recognition of the relationship in other states (civil unions and domestic partnerships might not always be recognized in other states);
  • The ability to divorce in their state of residence, regardless of where the couple was originally married;
  • Various tax benefits available to married couples only;
  • Immigration benefits when petitioning for a non-citizen spouse to relocate to the U.S.; and
  • Federal benefits, such as social security, medical benefits, and life insurance.

Additionally, one of the big differences is how each of these partnerships are obtained. In most states, a marriage must be officiated by a licensed individual either by a deputy of the state or by a licensed religious official. Whereas, in most states, a civil union or domestic partnership do not require any sort of religious official to solemnize the union.

In some cases, domestic partnerships can be free and automatically granted if the individuals involved qualify. Like, if one or both individuals are above a certain age and have lived together for a certain length of time. Keep in mind that the requirements for a domestic partnership and civil union can vary from state to state, so check your local laws before you decide which form of legalized union is right for you. 

What are Some Ways to Gain Some Benefits of Marriage?

There are several ways that couples in alternative arrangements can increase their number of benefits.These ways include:

  • Second parent adoption of your children;
  • Creating durable or medical power of attorney through your partner;
  • Crafting a durable and specific will; and
  • Planning your estate carefully

Again, the laws of each state may vary and are also subject to change over time. It may be in your best interests to consult with an attorney, as they may be able to provide additional insights regarding benefits for couples. 

How Can a Civil Union Be Dissolved?

The process of dissolving a civil union generally follows the same steps as divorce for a married couple. An exception to this is the state of Vermont, which has completely separate legal procedures for divorces and a dissolution of a civil union.

However, various legal hurdles can sometimes arise when trying to dissolve a civil union. These can include:

  • Residency Requirements: In most instances, the couple would need to meet residency requirements in the state where they are attempting to dissolve the civil union in. For instance, in the state of New Jersey, at least one partner in a civil union must live in New Jersey for at least one year before they apply for the termination. Other states have different residency requirements. You may need to consult with a lawyer to determine the residency requirements for your state.
  • Change of Residence: If the couple relocated out of the state where they originally were granted the civil union, it can be difficult to have the union dissolved. For instance, some states may not recognize civil unions, so they may not be able to dissolve the union if they move to one of those states. Again, consultation with a lawyer can help clarify options for the couple. 

Various other issues can arise in general with regard to civil unions. These can include issues surrounding subject matter such as child custody, adoptions, child or spousal support, and other legal issues. 

Do I Need an Attorney to Decide if a Marriage or Civil Union is Right for Me?

Now, legal marriage is accessible and available to so many more people. But it is still up to each couple to decide which type of union works best for them. It will always depend on the circumstances of the situation and the couple’s personal opinions. 

But, if you are choosing between marriage and another alternative such as domestic partnership or a civil union and believe you can face legal complications or issues depending on which you pick, then you may wish to consult a family law lawyer. An attorney can explain your legal options and help you understand what types of legal strategies are right for you and your family. If any legal issues or disputes arise, your attorney can provide representation in court as well.