In the world of committed adult relationships, marriage is akin to the eldest sibling. Marriage has long been considered one of the cornerstone institutions of American society. When a couple marries, they gain access to a multitude of legal benefits on the federal and state level. Some states, however, offer other legal options a couple may use to demonstrate the committed nature of their relationship, such as civil unions.
History of same sex unions
In 2000, Vermont became the first state to pass a law allowing civil unions for same-sex couples. The Vermont Legislature passed this law to provide an alternate form of legal commitment for same-sex couples after the highest court of the state found that same-sex couples were entitled to the same benefits as opposite-sex couples. Rather than expanding marriage to include same-sex partners, Vermont passed a law granting them the right to enter into civil unions.
Civil union for same-sex couples
Over the next several years, many other states followed Vermont’s lead, granting same-sex couples the option to enter into a civil union to formalize their relationships. Others passed laws granting these couples the ability to enter into domestic partnerships. Neither of these alternatives to marriage granted couples any rights under federal laws, and even the rights granted under state laws varied considerably, particularly for domestic partnerships. Some states even went so far as to pass laws specifically authorizing same-sex couples to marry. Other states took the opposite approach, banning any possibility of same-sex marriage or civil unions.
Then, in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. This case placed two issues squarely before the Court:
- Whether states were required to allow same-sex marriages; and
- Whether states were required to recognize same-sex marriages validly performed in other states.
The majority of the Court issued a decision requiring states to do both. As a result, same-sex couples who marry now share the same rights, privileges, and responsibilities as opposite-sex married couples.
Since the Obergefell decision was rendered, there has been additional activity on the same-sex relationship scene. Four states still offer civil unions as an option: Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, and New Jersey. In those states, same-sex couples may decide whether they want to marry or enter into civil unions. Five states that previously allowed civil unions have passed laws converting those relationships into marriages: Connecticut, Delaware, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. However, these five states have removed the option for new same-sex marriages from their laws.
The laws in this area are still responding to the Court’s Obergefell decision. It’s a safe bet that same-sex married couples will receive the full benefits and responsibilities of marriage. However, if a couple is interested in learning about existing alternatives where they live, the wise move is to consult with a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction.
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