What Is a Civil Union?

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 What Is a Civil Union?

A civil union is a legal status that is granted by states. The State of Vermont was the first state to create civil unions in 2000.

Civil unions provide legal protection to couples at the state law level. However, it does not provide federal protections of the same security, clarity, and power of a marriage.

A civil union has many differences from marriages, which will be discussed further below. Because the federal government does not recognize civil unions, a couple who is involved in one may be in limbo related to government functions performed by both state and federal governments, such as:

  • Taxation;
  • Pension protections;
  • Provision of insurance for families; and
  • Means-tested programs such as Medicaid.

Even when a state does its best to provide legal protections, those protections may not be provided in joint federal and state programs. There are several states that have expanded the legal rights that are available to same-sex couples through domestic partnership and civil unions.

There are five states that allow civil unions, including:

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

There are also some states that allow domestic partnerships, including:

  • California;
  • The District of Columbia;
  • Maine;
  • Nevada;
  • Oregon;
  • Washington; and
  • Wisconsin.

The State of Hawaii allows for a similar type of relationship as reciprocal beneficiaries. After the legalization of same-sex marriages, five states have converted all civil unions into marriages, including:

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

Every state that allows civil unions or domestic partnerships now allows same-sex marriages based on statutes or court rulings.

What Types of Rights Are Associated with Civil Unions?

There are many ways couples who are in alternative relationship arrangements may be able to increase the benefits they receive, including:

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

It is important to note that the laws in every state may vary and are constantly changing. If an individual has any questions or concerns about civil unions in their state, it is important that they consult with a lawyer for the most up-to-date information and the benefits they may be able to obtain.

What Is the Difference between Civil Union and Marriage?

There are numerous and significant differences between the responsibilities and benefits of marriages and civil unions. Typically, individuals who are married have more benefits than those in alternative relationship arrangements.

Examples of the main differences between civil unions and marriages include:

  • The legal recognition of the individual’s relationship in other states. For example, civil unions may not always be recognized in other states;
  • The ability to obtain a divorce in their state of residence, regardless of where they were originally married;
  • Tax benefits that are only available to married couples;
    • This may include federal government tax benefits;
  • Immigration benefits when petitioning for a non-citizen spouse to relocate to the United States; and
  • Federal benefits, including:

Another significant difference is how the relationship types are obtained. In most states, a marriage must be officiated by an individual who is a licensed religious official or who is licensed by a deputy of that state.

In most states, however, civil unions do not require any type of religious official to formalize the union. The requirements for civil unions, however, may vary by state.

Because of this, it is important to consult with a lawyer who can advise an individual of the advantages and disadvantages of marriages and civil unions to decide which best suits the needs of the couple.

When Should you Apply for a Civil Union License?

Every state and county has different requirements regarding when individuals should apply for civil union licenses. In general, for these types of ceremonies, the parties must meet the following requirements:

  • Both parties have to appear in person to apply for the civil union license;
  • Both parties will need to bring copies of their current driver’s licenses or passports and they cannot be expired;
  • Both parties must provide social security numbers and provide proof of residency such as a driver’s license, lease, tax return, etc.;
  • Additional documents that are helpful but not required include a copy of the parties’ birth certificates to establish
  • their parents’ names and related birth information;
  • If either party has been in a marriage, domestic partnership, or civil union previously;
  • A copy of a death certificate;
  • Divorce decree;
  • Dissolution of civil union; and
  • Witnesses also at least eighteen (18) years of age who know both parties must appear with the applicants and swear to the completeness and accuracy of the answers supplied.

Both parties must complete the civil union application before the license is issued. A civil union license is valid for 30 days from the date it is issued.

After the civil union ceremony occurs, the officiant who is performing the ceremony has to complete the bottom portion of the civil union license and mail or deliver it to the appropriate clerk’s office. An individual may also request a copy of their civil union certificate when needed.

Can a Civil Union Be Dissolved?

Generally, the process for dissolving a civil union follows the same steps as a divorce. One exception to this rule is Vermont, which has a completely separate legal procedure for the dissolution of a civil union.

There may be various hurdles that individuals may face when trying to dissolve their civil union, such as residency requirements and a change of residence. In the majority of states, the couple will be required to meet the residency requirements in the state where they are trying to dissolve their civil union.

In New Jersey, for example, at least one of the partners in the civil union must reside in New Jersey at least one year before applying for termination. As the requirements may vary by state, an individual should consult with an attorney to determine the residency requirements in their state.

If the individuals have relocated outside of the state in which they were originally granted the civil union, it can be challenging to have the union dissolved. For example, some states do not recognize civil unions.

Therefore, if the individuals resolve in a state that does not recognize civil unions, they will not likely be able to have their civil union dissolved. There are also other legal issues that may arise related to civil unions, including:

  • Child custody;
  • Adoption rights;
  • Child or spousal support; and
  • Other legal issues.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with a Civil Union?

If you are considering whether to enter into a civil union or a marriage or if you are pursuing a civil union with your partner, it is important to consult with a family law attorney. Your attorney can advise you of the civil union laws in your state as well as the advantages and disadvantages associated with each type of institution.

Your attorney can also advise you of the procedures for obtaining a civil union and help guide you through the process to ensure it goes smoothly. Your attorney can also provide valuable advice regarding estate planning and other planning to ensure your rights as a couple are protected.


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