Marriage Compared to Civil Unions

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 What is Marriage?

Marriage is a certain type of legal status which is given to a couple by their state government. Although there may be some exceptions, a marriage should be recognized in every state in the United States and every nation around the world regardless of where it was issued.

In general, marriages are desirable because they provide certain unique rights, protections, and obligations at both the state and federal levels for both of the spouses. This many include benefits surrounding:

  • Taxes;
  • Property ownership; and
  • Other issues.

In 2015, marriage for same-sex couples became legal in the United States following a United States Supreme Court decision. This means that marriage is now an option for both heterosexual and homosexual couples.

What are Civil Unions?

Another type of legal status which often provides many of the same protections as a marriage for couples is a civil union. These protections, however, are only available at the state level but not the federal level.

If individuals are joined by a civil union, they are not entitled to federal protections such as certain tax breaks and security benefits. Currently, there are five states that recognize civil unions. These include:

  • Colorado;
  • Hawaii;
  • Illinois;
  • New Jersey; and
  • Vermont.

Vermont recognizes older civil unions. In addition, Hawaii allows for a similar relationship status which is known as reciprocal beneficiaries.

What are Domestic Partnerships?

Domestic partnerships are yet another type of legal status which gives individuals some of the same rights as marriage. A large number of states have made domestic partnership relationships available to certain groups and classifications of individuals.

In general, domestic partnership relationships permit couples to enjoy the rights and responsibilities that are somewhat limited as compared to those granted to couples in a marriage.

Which States Allow Domestic Partnership?

Each state’s laws governing domestic partnership relationships are constantly changing. Because of this, it is important to consult with an attorney to determine the current status of this type of relationship in the state in which the individuals reside.

States which recognize domestic partnership relationships currently include:

  • California;
  • Connecticut;
  • District of Columbia (D.C.);
  • Nevada;
  • New Jersey;
  • Oregon;
  • Washington;
  • Vermont;
  • Wisconsin;
  • Maine;
  • Hawaii; and
  • Colorado.

It is also important to be aware that there are certain states which may only permit benefits in specific areas of that state. Therefore, it is important to have a lawyer determine the exact guidelines in the individual’s state.

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

There are several significant differences between the benefits and responsibilities of marriages, civil, unions, and domestic partnerships. Typically, individuals who are married enjoy more benefits than the alternative relationship arrangements. These differences may include:

  • The legal recognition of the individual’s relationship in other states. For example, civil unions and domestic partnerships may not always be recognized in other states;
  • The ability to divorce in their state of residence, regardless of where the individuals were originally married;
  • Various tax benefits available only to married couples;
  • Immigration benefits when petitioning for a non-citizen spouse to relocate to the United States; and
  • Federal benefits, including:
    • social security;
    • medical benefits; and
    • life insurance.

In addition, one of the more significant differences is how each of the relationship types are obtained. In the majority of states, a marriage is required to be officiated by an individual who is licensed either by a deputy of that state or by a licensed religious official. However, in most states, neither a domestic partnership or civil union requires any sort of religious official in order to formalize the union.

In some instances, domestic partnerships can be free and are automatically granted if the individuals in the relationship quality. For example, if one of both of the individuals are over a certain age and have resided together for a specific length of time.

It is important to note that the requirements for a domestic partnership and for a civil union may vary from state to state. Therefore, it is important to consult with an attorney who can advise regarding the pros and cons of each type of legalized union in order to decide which best suits the needs of the individuals.

What are Some Ways to Gain Benefits Similar to Marriage?

There are numerous ways which couples in alternative relationship arrangements can increase the number of benefits they receive. These include:

  • Second parent adoption of any children;
  • Each partner creating a durable or medical power of attorney through the other partner;
  • Crafting a durable and specific will for both partners; and
  • Planning each partner’s estate carefully.

It is important to remember that the laws of each state may vary and are changing over time. It is in the individual’s best interest to consult with a lawyer who may be able to provide additional insights regarding the benefits available for the couple.

How Can a Civil Union Be Dissolved?

In general, the process to dissolve a civil union follows the same steps as a divorce for a married couple. One exception to this rule is the State of Vermont, which has a completely separate legal procedure for a dissolution of a civil union and a divorce.

There are, however, various hurdles which may arise when individuals are trying to dissolve their civil union. These may include residency requirements and a change of residence.

In most cases, a couple will be required to meet the residency requirements in the state in which they are attempting to dissolve their civil union. For example, in the State of New Jersey, at least one partner in the civil union is required to reside in New Jersey for at least one year prior to applying for the termination.

The residency requirements may be different in other states. An individual should consult with a local attorney to determine the residency requirements for their state.

If a couple has relocated out of the state in which they were originally granted a civil union, it may be challenging to have the civil union dissolved. For example, certain states do not recognize civil unions, so if the individuals reside in that type of state, they will likely not be able to dissolve the union. It is best for the individuals to consult a local attorney to determine their options.

There are other issues which may arise in relation to civil unions. These may include issues regarding 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?

It is very important to have the assistance of a family lawyer when deciding if a marriage or a civil union is right for you. In recent years, marriage has been made available to many more individuals than it used to be available to.

It is still up to you and your partner to determine which type of union best suits your needs. This will depend upon the circumstances of your situation and your personal opinions as a couple.

However, if you are choosing between marriage and an alternative such as a domestic partnership or a civil union, your lawyer can help you understand the benefits, drawbacks, and legal complications which may arise. Should any legal disputes arise in the future, your lawyer will represent you in court.


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