Are You a Legal Professional?

Civil Unions v. Marriage

A civil union is a marriage-like arrangement available in several states that has important distinctions from marriage. It was created to allow same-sex couples a way to publicly commit to each other without quite granting them permission to marry. Some states, such as Vermont, converted all civil unions to marriages after legalizing same-sex marriage. But in general, civil unions (and domestic partnerships, which are essentially the same) are less relevant since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage bans were unconstitutional in 2015.

However, marriage issues remain hotly contested and frequently litigated, so this decision may be modified or overturned. There are also many people who remain in civil unions or domestic partnerships despite the availability of same-sex marriage. For these reasons the distinctions between marriage and civil unions may still produce legal issues.

The Ways in Which Civil Unions are the Same as Marriage

Most states that have civil unions give couples all the same rights and responsibilities as couples joined in marriage (although many states have since stopped issuing civil unions in light of Obergefell). The benefits of civil unions include:

  • Inheritance rights, or the right to automatically inherit from your spouse after he or she dies;
  • Bereavement leave to mourn for your spouse;
  • Right to your spouse's employment benefits, including health insurance;
  • Automatic designation as next-of-kin by medical professionals;
  • Joint ownership of property, and community property rights if you're in a community property state;
  • Joint state tax filings;
  • Joint parental rights over children born to or adopted by the couple;
  • Right not to testify against your civil union partner; and
  • Right to seek financial support or alimony after a dissolution from the civil union.

Hawaii's civil unions are called "Reciprocal Beneficiary Arrangements," but are otherwise very similar to civil union arrangements in other states.

Ways in Which Same-sex Civil Unions are Different than Marriages

The main differences between marriages and civil unions concern how those unions are treated by other states and the federal government. Marriage law is decided by the states, but has implications in federal law. Spouses can file taxes jointly and have rights to each other's social security and Medicaid benefits.

Civil unions, on the other hand, aren’t recognized under federal law -- unless they have been converted to marriages.

Thus, couples in civil unions don’t have Social Security entitlement benefits through their partners, individuals in a civil union with federal employees don’t have access to federal employee benefits, and civil union partners of foreign nationals can’t submit family based immigration petitions. If you’re in a same-sex civil union, you can now seek a marriage license in any state and become eligible for benefits.

Also, since marriage law is decided by the states, each state gets to decide which out-of-state marriages and unions it will recognize. However, all states must recognize same-sex marriages.

For more information, see FindLaw's Marriage and Living Together sections.

Have an Attorney Evaluate Your Legal Issue for Free

Marriages, civil unions, and relationship-related benefits are increasingly common subjects of litigation. Relationships are more complicated and new complications arise every day. A lawyer can help you understand the legal status of your relationship and the associated rights and obligations in your state. Contact a local attorney for a free legal review of your situation.

Next Steps
Contact a qualified family law attorney to make sure
your rights are protected.
(e.g., Chicago, IL or 60611)

Help Me Find a Do-It-Yourself Solution