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What is a Civil Union?

What is a Civil Union?

A civil union is a legal bond between two people that has some requirements and protections that are similar to marriage. Civil union laws are a very recent invention aimed mostly at giving same-sex couples rights in jurisdictions where same-sex marriage was not approved.  Denmark passed the first civil union law in 1989, and it allowed same-sex couples to be legally joined in a “registered partnership” that would give the couple most rights of married heterosexual couples.  The main difference was that same-sex couples in a civil union were not allowed to adopt children or have joint custody of a child.  

After becoming common across Europe, same-sex civil unions rather quickly became popular in the United States. Vermont had the first American civil-union law, which was passed in 2000 under Governor Howard Dean.  Gov. Dean said he would reject any law that approved same-sex marriage, but he agreed to allow civil unions because the state’s Supreme Court had ordered the state to create some type of option for same-sex couples.  The debate over the law was vicious, but it led to a provision that gave same-sex couples virtually all the same rights and responsibilities of married couples.  Other states would soon follow, including Oregon, California, Wisconsin, Maryland, and Illinois.

Today, civil unions are virtually extinct in the United States because they have been replaced by full same-sex marriage.  In 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex couples could not be denied the opportunity to get married.  Since that time, most states have eliminated their civil-union laws because they are unnecessary and most couples that had been in a civil union are now in a true marriage. Some states still recognize civil unions, though, and it is important to know how these unions are treated under the law.  

Civil union compared to a marriage

American civil unions historically have had three main differences with traditional marriage:

  • Reciprocity: Each state has traditionally recognized a valid marriage from any other state, as required by the full faith and credit clause of the U.S. Constitution.  Civil unions do not always get the same respect.
  • Benefits: The federal government and many private companies (like health insurers) often refuse to give marital benefits to couples that are in a civil union.  
  • Respect: Many same-sex couples feel that it is important for the government to show respect for the validity of their relationship.  Civil union laws confer many of the same legal benefits as marriage, but the different terminology signals to many that civil unions are an inferior status to traditional marriage.  

Related: The Reality of Civil Union Partnerships

States treat civil unions differently

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage across the country, states are still trying to figure out how to treat remaining civil unions.  Some states, like Connecticut, automatically rolled civil unions into marriages.  Other states, like Illinois, have kept civil unions as a distinct relationship category.  So, civil unions are rare but anyone engaging in a legal relationship with a couple in a civil union should pay close attention to the relevant laws. 


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