Learn the Differences Between a Civil Union and Marriage

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Before same-sex marriage was declared legal in 2015, the concept of a civil union was popular. For politicians, it seemed like an interchangeable idea that required no legal action—but if a civil union was the same as marriage, why would the LGBT community have fought so hard for equality? 

What Do We Mean When We Say 'Marriage'?

When people marry, they tend to do so for reasons of love and commitment. But marriage is also a legal status, which comes with rights and responsibilities. Marriage establishes a legal kinship between you and your spouse. It is a relationship that is recognized across cultures, countries and religions. In the United States, couples are issued a paper marriage license, which entitles both partners to share finances, benefits and insurance, as well as other kinds of allowances (such as hospital visitation rights). 

What Is a Civil Union?

Civil unions and domestic partnerships exist in only a handful of places like New Jersey and Oregon. Vermont was the first state to create civil unions in 2000 to provide legal protections to gays and lesbians in relationships in that state because same-sex marriage was not an option.

Civil unions offer some of the same rights and responsibilities as marriage, but only on a state level; this means a civil union does not offer any federal protections at all. 

What Is a Domestic Partnership?

Some states and municipalities have domestic partnership registries, but no domestic partnership law is the same. Some, like Oregon's domestic partnership law comes with many rights and responsibilities. Others offer very few benefits to the couple.

Differences Between Civil Unions and Gay Marriages

  • Recognition in other states: Even though each state has its own laws around marriage, if someone is married in one state and moves to another, their marriage is legally recognized. For example, Oregon marriage law applies to people 17 and over. In Washington state, the couple must be 18 to wed. However, Washington will recognize the marriage of two 17-year-olds from Oregon who move there. This is not the case with Civil Unions and Domestic Partnerships. If someone has a Domestic Partnership, that union is recognized by some states and not others. Some states have even ruled that they do not have to recognize civil unions performed in other states, because their states have no such legal category. 
  • Immigration: A United States citizen who is married can sponsor his or her non-American spouse for immigration into this country. Those with civil unions have no such privilege.
  • Taxes: Civil unions are not recognized by the federal government, so couples would not be able to file joint-tax returns or be eligible for tax breaks or protections the government affords to married couples.
  • Benefits: The General Accounting Office in 1997 released a list of 1,049 benefits and protections available to heterosexual married couples. These benefits range from federal benefits, such as survivor benefits through Social Security, sick leave to care for ailing partner, tax breaks, veterans benefits and insurance breaks. They also include things like family discounts, obtaining family insurance through your employer, visiting your spouse in the hospital and making medical decisions if your partner is unable to. Civil unions protect some of these rights, but not all of them. 

Can a Lawyer Set Up Marriage-Like Benefits for Same-Sex Couples?

While a lawyer can set up some things like durable power of attorney, wills and medical power of attorney, there are several problems with this solution.

  • It costs thousands of dollars in legal fees. A simple marriage license, which usually costs under $100 would cover all the same rights and benefits.
  • Any of these can be challenged in court. As a matter of fact, more wills are challenged than not. In the case of wills, legal spouses always have more legal power than any other family member.
  • Marriage laws are universal. If someone’s husband or wife is injured in an accident, all you need to do is show up and say you’re his or her spouse. You will not be questioned. If you show up at the hospital with your legal paperwork, the employees may not know what to do with you. If you simply say, "He's my husband," you will immediately be taken to your spouse's side.

Thankfully, any queer couples looking to wed since the Supreme Court ruled on Obergefell v. Hodges have been able to do so fairly easily. A marriage is not for everyone, though, and your relationship may need a different arrangement.

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