Before same-sex marriage became legal in the United States in 2015, Hawaii developed two alternatives for same-sex couples: reciprocal beneficiary relationships and civil unions.

Same-sex marriage is now legal in Hawaii, and the reciprocal beneficiary relationship is no longer an option for same-sex couples, but same-sex couples may now choose between either civil union or marriage.

Reciprocal Beneficiary Relationships in Hawaii

In 1997, reciprocal beneficiary relationships became legal in Hawaii. They were instituted as an option for same-sex couples in the state, because same-sex marriage was not availble under the law at the time.

Two people who want to enter into a reciprocal beneficiary relationship must qualify as follows:

  • Be over the age of 18;
    Be unmarried and not already in another reciprocal beneficiary relationship;
    Be legally prohibited from marrying each other;
    Consent to the relationship without force, duress, or fraud;
    Be willing to sign a declaration of a reciprocal beneficiary relationship.

Now same-sex marriage is legal in Hawaii, and for that reason, the reciprocal beneficiary relationship is no longer an option for same-sex couples in the state. A same sex couple would not qualify because the partners are not legally prohibited from marrying each other. Keep in mind, however, that existing reciprocal beneficiary relationships between same-sex couples, relationships whose formation pre-dated the legalization of same-sex marriage, are still recognized as legal in Hawaii.

Also, an existing civil union or reciprocal beneficiary registration does not limit a person’s ability to marry the same partner. If the partners in a reciprocal beneficiary relationship or a civil union want to marry, they do not have to dissolve their civil union or registration to do so. Once their marriage is solemnized, the civil union or reciprocal beneficiary registration terminates automatically and the couple acquire the rights and responsibilities associated with marriage.

In Hawaii, the reciprocal beneficiary relationship is now available for those who are relatives by blood or marriage and seek a legal relationship, because they are still legally prohibited from marrying each other. Registering for such a reciprocal beneficiary relationship entitles the partners to some of the benefits of marriage, including:

  • The ability to sue for the wrongful death of one partner;
  • Hospital visitation;
  • Healthcare decision-making;
  • Inheritance rights;
  • Health insurance and pension benefits for state employees;
  • The right to jointly own property as “tenants by the entirety”;
  • Pension benefits for state employees.

Among the Individuals prohibited by state law from marrying are relations such as half-brother and half-sister, brother and sister, uncle and niece, aunt and nephew, widowed mother and her unmarried son. These relatives may enter into a reciprocal beneficiary relationship in Hawaii. Presumably, because two people related by blood or marriage would be prohibited from marrying even if of the same sex, then related people of the same sex would be eligible to form a reciprocal beneficiary relationship.

The formation of a reciprocal beneficiary relationship is quite simple and easy. The partners may prepare and file a Registration of Reciprocal Beneficiary Form with the Hawaii Department of Health. The form must be signed by both parties and notarized. The partners must pay a fee of $8.00 at the time of the filing of the registration form. If they send in a stamped, self-addressed, legal-sized envelope when they send in their registration form, the Department of Health will send them a copy of the certificate of registration of their reciprocal beneficiary relationship. If they include two stamped, self-addressed, legal-sized envelopes, they can receive two certificates.

Termination of the reciprocal beneficiary relationship is equally simple and easy. One partner can do it alone without the knowledge or agreement of the other. The partner must complete and file a Declaration of Termination of Reciprocal Beneficiary Relationship form with the Hawaii Department of Health. The form must be signed by one of the partners and notarized. The fee for filing the form is $8.00.

Again, if a legal-sized, stamped, self-addressed envelope is included with the form, the Department of Health will send the party a Certificate of Termination. Two copies of the Certificate can be obtained if two legal-sized, self-addressed, stamped envelopes are sent in with the Declaration of Termination.

Civil Unions in Hawaii

Civil unions became available for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples in 2012. In order to form a civil union, a couple must first apply for a civil union license. Once they have applied, they must appear before an authorized civil union agent to obtain the license. Finally, they must then have their civil union solemnized by a licensed civil union officiant, e.g. a judge, retired judge or member of the clergy.

Eligibility to enter into a civil union requires that the partners be:

  • Over 18 years of age;
  • Unmarried and not in any other civil union or domestic partnership;
  • Not related as parent and child, grandparent and grandchild, siblings, aunt/uncle and nephew/niece, or as
  • persons who stand in relation to each other as ancestor and descendant to any degree whatsoever.

Partners in civil unions in Hawaii have most of the same rights and responsibilities that married couples have. Unlike married couples, however, they may not enjoy certain federal benefits associated with marriage. In addition, their union will not be recognized in the majority of other U.S. states or foreign countries.

Dissolving a civil union is more complicated than forming one. One or both partners must file for a civil union divorce in a family law court in Hawaii to end a civil union. It is possible to obtain an uncontested civil union divorce if the couple does not have minor or dependent children by completing a packet of forms for a family law court judge to review. Neither party would have to appear before the court for the divorce to be finalized, if all the necessary documents are submitted and completed correctly.

Of course, if the couple has minor or dependent children or the divorce is contested, additional procedures would be required and the divorce would proceed as would a contested divorce in the case of marriage. So, there could be issues of spousal support, child custody and visitation, child support, and division of assets and debts.

There are residency requirements for filing for a civil union divorce in Hawaii. The partner who initiates the divorce must have lived in Hawaii for at least six months prior to filing and in the county in which they file for at least three months.

The Effect of Same-Sex Marriage on Domestic Partners and Reciprocal Beneficiaries

On December 2, 2013, Hawaii officially extended legal status to same-sex marriages. As of 2015, same-sex marriage is legal throughout the United States. Same-sex partners are no longer eligible to become reciprocal beneficiaries, because they are allowed to marry under Hawaii law.

On the other hand, all same-sex couples can choose between a civil union and a marriage. And presumably same-sex relations who are prohibited from marrying might enter into a reciprocal beneficiary relationship.

Should I Consult with an Attorney?

Forming a civil union with someone is a major commitment, both socially and legally. Thus, it is a decision that is not to be made lightly. If you are in the process of choosing whether to marry or to form a civil union, or if you have questions about the rights and responsibilities that go along with these alternatives, you would do well to consult an experienced Hawaii family law attorney.

Your attorney would be able to fully explain the rights and responsibilities that go with each option, for example, the fact that a marriage will be recognized in all states in the U.S., while that is not the case with a civil union. The attorney can also help you compare the procedures for forming as well as dissolving the civil union or marriage and help you decide which is best for your situation.

They would also be familiar with the forms and paperwork that are required and could complete it efficiently and move the processes along as quickly as possible.You are most
likely to get the best possible outcome if you consult with an experienced Hawaii family law attorney.