The term civil union describes a relationship between two individuals that offers the couple certain legal protection.
Civil unions differ from marriages in that they do not provide a couple with any of the federal protections provided to married spouses, such as the right to file a joint tax return and Social Security benefits that accrue to one’s survivors’ and/or spouse.
Civil unions were originally conceived as a remedy for same-sex couples who wanted to get married but were barred from doing so by law.
For the most part, civil unions have become obsolete as a result the 2015 Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriages in the United States.
Civil Unions vs. Marriages
In general, there are three primary differences between civil unions and marriages, both from a legal as well as a practical standpoint:
1. Transportability: Due to the fact that civil unions are not acknowledged in every state, they may not always be recognized when a couple moves to another state.
2. Federal benefits: States can only grant state rights and benefits to those in civil unions. These individuals have no right to federal benefits, whether they are a same-sex or heterosexual couple.
3. Terminology: “Marriage” is a concept that has societal and cultural implications for both advocates and opponents of same-sex marriage. This became far less of an issue following the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling of 2015 that effectively made marriage between same-sex individuals possible in all states.
Civil unions and same-sex marriage in the states
In the year 2000, Vermont introduced the first civil union law after the state’s Supreme Court ruled in Baker v. State that the law must provide same-sex couples the same rights, privileges, and protection as it provides to heterosexual couples.
Granting same-sex couples the right to join in a civil union was very controversial. However, shortly after Vermont enacted its civil union law, other states began to follow suit or even take it a step further by allowing same-sex marriages. In 2003, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriages.
In 2005, Connecticut enacted its civil union law. Later in 2010, it repealed all of its previous marriage laws and replaced them with gender-neutral terminology, making way for same-sex marriages.
At that time, not every state had a civil union law. Where civil union laws did exist, these laws were in a constant state of flux and varied widely from state to state. Furthermore, until 2013, when the United States Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Windsor that same-sex marriages are entitled to federal benefits, civil union laws provided same-sex couples, none of the federal protections provided to married couples.
Finally, in 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex couples must be provided the same rights, benefits, and protection as provided to heterosexual couples. In addition, this ruling nullified all state bans on same-sex marriage and made it mandatory for the state to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
Currently, a marriage between two men or two women is possible in 37 states and married same-sex couples now enjoy the same rights as married heterosexual couples, including the right to divorce, next of kin status, spousal testimonial privileges, inheritance rights, survivorship rights, and the right to file joint tax returns.
Civil unions laws change frequently. For the most up to date information regarding the laws in your state, contact a local family law attorney.