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Same-Sex Marriage, Civil Unions, and Domestic Partnerships

Civil Union

A "civil union" is a type of legal status offered to some couples at the state level. This confers a status that is the same or nearly as equal to that of marriage. At the same time, civil unions are not the same thing as marriages, as there may be technical and cultural differences associated with 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.

Rights Associated with Civil Unions

A couple that has been granted civil union status may enjoy many of the same rights as married couples, such as hospital visitation rights, property rights, access to some employment benefits, and adoption rights. These rights may vary by state.

Note that civil union rights only apply at the state level. Benefits under the federal government such as tax or social security benefits may not be available to couples in a civil union.

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.

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:

  • Property rights;
  • Estate planning; and
  • Divorce

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.

Can a Civil Union Be Dissolved?

Yes, and the process for dissolving a civil union is often very similar to the process for divorce. The couple would need to make an official filing with the court in order to have their civil union status terminated. Civil union dissolution can become quite complicated however in certain situations. For instance, if a couple received their civil union in one state, then moved to another one where civil unions are not recognized, they may have some difficulties in the process.

Domestic Partnership

A domestic partnership is a committed relationship between two people who live together but are not married. A few states extend benefits to domestic partners. In the locations that extend benefits to domestic partners, a couple can apply to register their relationship and receive certain government benefits, some of the same benefits as marriage, but not all of them

A couple in a domestic partnership share a residence, finances and can even raise children together as unmarried parents. Domestic partnership was originally available to same-sex couples who were barred from getting married, but now marriage is available to same-sex couples in all states. Some states still offer domestic partnership to same-sex couples. Some localities offer domestic partnership to all couples.

There are no federally-mandated guidelines for what a domestic partnership is, because domestic partnership, like marriage, is a matter of state and local law. Each state and locality defines these relationships differently.

Registering as Domestic Partners

Couples can formalize their domestic partnership by registering in the manner prescribed by law in the place they are registering. This might be with their employer, local government, a state court or other governmental agency in the state in which they reside, if there is recognition of domestic partnerships. In most locations, both partners must be at least 18 years of age, unmarried, and competent to enter into a contract. They must not be in another domestic partnership relationship; they must have been in the committed relationship for a period of at least six months.

In some states, the couple can begin the process by filing applications in a state courthouse and signing them with witnesses present. Additionally, the partners may need to provide proper identification with the necessary fees to complete the process. The process is different elsewhere. For example, in Washington, D.C., city residents who want to register as domestic partners must appear in person at the D.C. Department of Health, submit their application, and pay a fee to register. They must also present documentation proving that they satisfy the registration requirements, e.g. they are over the age of 18, unmarried, and share a permanent residence.

The documents that will be useful in applying for a domestic partnership relationship are as follows:

  • Proper identification i.e. a driver's license, passport or other documents that provide proper identification. Partners should check the law of the state, county or city in which they live and are registering;
  • A deed showing title to residential real property, mortgage, or rental agreement naming both applicants as occupants of the residence.

If a person and their partner hold themselves out as being in a domestic partnership, but do not formally register with a court, they may not be able to receive the same benefits as a couple who is formally registered with a court or other agency of government as required by local law. Again, it is important to check the law in the state, county and/or municipality where the couple lives.

Registration itself does not offer any immediate benefits; the affidavit itself is what creates the domestic partnership and not the registration. Nonetheless, third parties such as insurance companies and employers look at the registry to decide who might be eligible for employee benefits, e.g. spousal coverage for health insurance. So, it is important to check the law in the city and county in which a person lives.

At the time when the partners establish their domestic partnership, they may want to consult a lawyer about making arrangements for their assets, as well as specifying what would happen if they were to decide to separate. These issues are not addressed in the standard affidavit for a domestic partnership.

Which States Recognize Domestic Partnership?

Domestic partnership law has changed with the advent of same-sex marriage is virtually all states of the U.S. Therefore, it is important that a person consult with an experienced family law attorney on the current status of domestic partnership in their state, county and municipality.

Benefits of a Domestic Partnership

Although domestic partners might not enjoy exactly the same rights and benefits as married couples, states do offer some benefits which can include the right to receive the following:

  • Health, dental and vision insurance;
  • Death benefits and inheritance rights;
  • Visitation rights in jails and hospitals;
  • The authority for one partner to make medical and financial decisions for a partner;
  • Accident and life insurance;
  • Housing rights; and
  • Parental leave and adoption rights.

Some employers offer these benefits even if the state in which they do business does not recognize the domestic partnership relationship.

Terminating a Domestic Partnership

As with everything connected to domestic partnership, the ways to terminate it vary from state to state. In some states, either party or both parties can apply for a termination of the domestic partnership relationship. After filing, there is a six-month waiting period before the domestic partnership terminates. During this time, there is still a continuation of benefits for both the partners.

The end of a domestic partnership may well involve some of the same issues as divorce. Again, it is important to consult a family law attorney in the place where a person lives.

A partner who has applied for the termination may be able to withdraw it, if the relationship still meets the requirements of the domestic partnership. However, once the six-month period expires, the couple will need to reapply for a new domestic partnership after the termination of the previous one.

Automatic termination of the domestic partnership can occur for any of the following reasons:

  • Death of one of the partners;
  • The partners marry each other;
  • One partner marries someone else or;
  • One partner abandons the relationship or the mutual residence.

Domestic Partnership vs. Marriage

The differences between a domestic partnership and a marriage vary by state. The right to enter into a marriage is available to all individuals in every state. However, not all states recognize a domestic partnership relationship.

Marriage often entails more protections and benefits than a domestic partnership. Domestic relations are not considered “family” by law. Married couples can inherit assets automatically upon death, but this is not the case for domestic partners. A married couple can file joint federal and state income tax returns.

Additionally, married couples have the benefits of social security; one spouse can benefit from the other spouse's social security benefit and may be entitled to a portion of a spouse's benefit if the spouse dies.

A couple must get divorced in order to terminate a marriage. This process might be more complicated than the process for ending a domestic partnership or even a civil union.

Choosing to be in a domestic partnership or marriage can depend on various emotional and relationship factors. Therefore, when considering the options, it will be useful to understand the rights and benefits that come with each kind of relationship. A person should really consult an experienced family law attorney in their place of residence to gain a full understanding. 

How can a Family Lawyer Help with Domestic Partnership Issues?

The law regarding marriage and domestic partnership is complicated and depends largely on where a person lives. It is best to consult an experienced family law lawyer in order to get a full explanation of the options available in the place where a person lives and what the benefits and disadvantages of each status are. This will ensure that you make the best choice for your particular situation and understand all implications of your choice. 

Consider hiring a family lawyer if you are deciding whether to marry or enter into an alternative legal relationship, such as a civil union. An attorney can provide you with legal advice that can help clarify any questions you might have. If you have any issues, questions, or concerns regarding the differences between marriage, civil unions, it may be helpful to consult with a 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.

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