A civil union is a legal status which is offered to some couples in certain states at the state level. This status is the same or basically equal to that of marriage.

It is important to note that civil unions are not the same as marriages. There may be technical as well as cultural differences between the two concepts.

A civil union, similar to a domestic partnership, was commonly enacted to assist same-sex couples with having a legal relationship that offered some of the same rights and responsibilities as marriage. There are some states which have done away with civil unions when legalizing same-sex marriage.

These states include:

  • Connecticut;
  • Delaware;
  • New Hampshire;
  • Rhode Island; and
  • Vermont.

Civil unions are now available in only a few states, including:

  • Colorado: Allows civil unions for applicants who are:
    • over 18;
    • unmarried;
    • not in another civil union; and
    • not related as siblings or aunt or uncle or niece or nephew;
  • Hawaii: Allows civil unions for applicants who are:
    • over 18;
    • unmarried;
    • not in another reciprocal beneficiary relationship or civil union; and
    • not closely related;
  • Illinois: Allows civil unions for applicants who are:
    • over 18;
    • unmarried;
    • not in another civil union; and
    • not blood relatives
  • New Jersey: Allows civil unions for applicants who are:
    • over 18;
    • unmarried;
    • not in another domestic partnership or civil union; and
    • of the same sex; and
  • Vermont: No longer allows civil unions, but recognizes civil unions granted in the state prior to the legalization of same-sex marriage in the state.

What Types of Rights are Associated with Civil Unions?

Couples who have been granted civil union status may enjoy many of the same rights as individuals who are married, including:

  • Hospital visitation rights;
  • Property rights;
  • Access to certain employment benefits; and
  • Adoption rights.

It is important to note that these rights may vary by state. Also, rights related to civil unions only apply at the state level.

Benefits provided by the federal government, including social security or tax beignets may not be available to individuals in a civil union.

What about Recognition of Same-Sex Marriage in the United States?

In 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a legal right to marry in all 50 states. This resolved the complex situation wherein some states had legalized same-sex marriages or domestic partnerships while other states did not recognize these types of relationships, preventing same-sex couples from enjoying the legal benefits associated with marriage.

The recognition of same-sex marriage in the U.S. means that there is no legal difference between the marriage of same-sex couples and other-sex couples in any state.

This also means that the same rights and responsibilities related to marriage applies to all married couples, including those involving:

One benefit of the legalization of same-sex marriage across the United States is that same-sex couples can marry in one state and get divorced in another state if they move.

What about International Recognition of Same-Sex Marriage?

There are other countries which have fully recognized same-sex marriages. This recognition, however, does not always extend to the territories which are held by the countries.

The countries that currently recognize same-sex marriages and the dates this began include:

  • Argentina (July 22, 2010);
  • Belgium (June 1, 2003);
  • Brazil (May 16, 2013);
  • Canada (July 20, 2005);
  • Denmark (June 15, 2012);
  • Finland (March 1, 2017);
  • France (May 18, 2013);
  • Iceland (June 27, 2010);
  • Ireland (August 29, 2015);
  • Luxembourg (January 1, 2015);
  • Mexico (Same-sex marraiges are not performed in all states but have been recognized in all states since August 10, 2010);
  • The Netherlands (April 1, 2001);
  • New Zealand (August 19, 2013);
  • Norway (January 1, 2009);
  • Portugal (June 5, 2010);
  • South Africa (November 30, 2006);
  • Spain (July 3, 2005);
  • Sweden (May 1, 2009);
  • The United Kingdom (England/Wales – March 13, 2014; Scotland – December 16, 2014); and
  • Uruguay (August 5, 2013).

Other nations may not recognize same-sex marriages or they may ban them outright. If a same-sex couple moved to a country or territory which does not permit same-sex marriage, they may not be able to obtain a divorce if they desire to do so.

What are Designated Beneficiary Arrangements in Colorado?

Colorado began offering designated beneficiary agreements in 2009 to same-sex couples that provided certain rights they were otherwise denied. These arrangements provided certain, but not all of, the rights which are associated with marriage in Colorado.

In order to qualify for a designated beneficiary arrangement in Colorado, a couple must be:

  • Unmarried;
  • At least 18 years of age;
  • Competent to enter into a contract;
  • Not a party to another designated beneficiary agreement; and
  • Voluntarily entering into the agreement without fraud, force, or duress.

What Rights are Associated with Designated Beneficiary Agreements?

A designated beneficiary agreement provides the power to confer certain rights and responsibilities upon the parties to the agreement. Because each agreement is unique, the rights and responsibilities will vary by agreement.

There are 16 possible rights that may be conferred, including rights related to:

  • Property;
  • Trusts;
  • Retirement and pension plans;
  • Insurance;
  • Hospital visitation rights; and
  • Inheritance issues.

These rights and responsibilities are more limited than those which would be available in a marriage. For some couples, however, this may be an ideal alternative to marriage.

What are Civil Unions in Colorado?

The State of Colorado made civil unions available to all couples in 2013. In order for a couple to qualify for a civil union, the parties must be:

  • 18 years of age or have the consent of their parent or legal guardian;
  • Unmarried and not in a civil union with another person; and
  • Not related as siblings or as uncle or aunt or niece or nephew.

What Rights are Associated with Civil Unions?

In Colorado, civil unions provide numerous rights and responsibilities for couples, including:

  • Financial support of a partner;
  • The ability to adopt the child of a partner;
  • Inheritance rights;
  • The ability to insure a partner;
  • Hospital visitation; and
  • Eligibility for family leave benefits.

Colorado civil unions, however, do not confer all of the rights and responsibilities of a marriage. If individuals enter into a civil union, it does not affect certain federal benefits.

In addition, the partnership may not be recognized in other states or countries.

Does the Legalization of Same-Sex Marriage Affect Civil Unions and Designated Beneficiary Agreements?

Same-sex marriage was made legal in Colorado in 2014 by the Supreme Court decision discussed above. This means that same-sex couples in the state are no longer limited to designated beneficiary agreements or civil unions if they want to have their partnership recognized by the state as well as to obtain some of the same rights and responsibilities as a married couple.

It is important to note that designated beneficiary agreements and civil unions are still available as alternatives to marriage in Colorado.

Do I Need an Attorney?

If you have any issues, questions, or concerns regarding the differences between marriage, civil unions, and designated beneficiaries in Colorado, it may be helpful to consult with a Colorado family attorney. Your attorney will be able to explain all of the available options to you as well as assist you in deciding which option best meets your needs as a couple.