Civil Union vs. Marriage: What's the Difference?

Gay couple holding hands and having a walk after their gay wedding ceremony.

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If you want to make your partnership official you may be looking at all your options. Marriage, after all, isn't the only way to be tied together under the law. But the options can be confusing. They all have different protections and benefits, and it can be hard to know which option to choose. For help, we turned to matrimonial lawyer Jacqueline Newman.

Meet the Expert

Jacqueline Newman is a managing partner at one of the largest matrimonial law firms in New York, Berkman Bottger Newman & Schein.

She talked us through two options that couples can pursue: marriage and civil unions. While civil unions may have been much more popular before same-sex marriage was legalized in the United States, a few couples still use them for financial purposes (like moving into a lower tax bracket) or to avoid a stigma they or their communities might associate with marriage.

"I would say the reason someone may do a civil union now is that they don't want to get into the society of marriage, but they still want to have legal rights," she shares. Read on to learn more about what a civil union and marriage are and how to make the best choice for you and your partner.

What Is a Civil Union and a Marriage?

Civil unions and marriages have similar definitions. A civil union is a legal relationship between two people that provides legal protection to the couple at the state level. If a couple is in a civil union they get inheritance rights, employment benefits, property, parental rights, and more.

Marriage is also a lawful relationship between two people that provides legal protection to a couple. Marriages, however, provide benefits at the federal and state level. Couples in a marriage get many of the same rights as those in a civil union along with others such as the ability to file federal taxes jointly and social security benefits.

Marriages are also recognized by many religions, while civil unions may not be. Your church or synagogue may spiritually recognize your marriage but not your civil union.

Similarities Between a Civil Union and Marriage

Couples in civil unions and marriages get many of the same benefits. If one partner dies, the other can inherit their assets. One partner can get access to another's health insurance. People in civil unions have the exact same rights when it comes to their kids as they would in a marriage. They also have spousal privilege, which means one partner cannot be forced to testify against another in court.

Getting a civil union is also a very similar process to a marriage. You have to apply for a license, and there are requirements to fulfill such as being a certain age or paying a fee. You can have a ceremony to sanctify your civil union just like you can with a marriage.

Even the process of breaking up a relationship is similar in both partnerships: a complaint is filed in family court. Both parties have to negotiate the terms of their dissolution, and one may ask the other for alimony.

Differences Between a Civil Union and a Marriage

The biggest difference between a civil union and a marriage is that the former is not recognized by the federal government. Therefore, you will only get protection at a state level (and that is assuming you live in a state that recognizes civil unions.)

When you get married you get many benefits from the federal government. For example, the Social Security Administration gives benefits to partners in a marriage, but not necessarily those in a civil union. The surviving spouse of a veteran may be eligible for health coverage in a marriage, but not always in a civil union.

The other difference is that while marriages are recognized by every state (if you get married in Ohio it will be recognized in Pennsylvania) civil unions are not. That means if you get a civil union certificate in one state and then move to another state you might not get the same benefits.

How to Determine Which Is Best for You

"Civil unions rarely happen anymore," says Newman. "The real history of them was basically when same-sex marriages weren't recognized federally, this was a couple's way of getting around that." Now that same-sex marriages are recognized federally civil unions may be a lot less popular and common. In fact, only five states allow them: Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Vermont, and New Jersey. That means by default you might not be able to get one if you don't live in one of those states. (There are still other options for you, like domestic partnerships, if you don't want to get married.)

However, civil unions can be beneficial in two circumstances, Newman shares. The first is if you don't believe in marriage or don't like the idea of getting married, but still want many of the same legal protections. "People want to be together and they want to have kids, but they don't want the title or societal pressure of being married," she explains.

The other reason is if you don't want to be recognized as legally married by the federal government because of tax purposes. "This would be the people who fall into the category where it costs more money to file jointly," she admits. "That means you don't have to file your federal taxes as a married couple. You can file your state taxes as married and not your federal taxes if you have a marriage tax penalty."

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