Same Sex Marriage, Civil Unions, and Domestic Partnerships
While the challenge for legal recognition of same-sex couples heightens, individuals considering same-sex commitments have different types of protection under the law. Below is general information on same-sex marriage, civil unions, and domestic partnerships.
Same-sex marriage refers to a legally recognized marriage between two spouses of the same gender. Generally, same-sex spouses have the same rights and benefits as legally married opposite-sex couples, including tax relief, emergency medical decision-making power, access to domestic relations laws, spousal benefits (including workers' compensation,) inheritance rights and spousal testimonial privilege.
The federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) allows each state to choose whether or not to recognize a same-sex union that is recognized in another state. In other words, a same sex partnership which is valid in one state may not be valid in a state that does not recognize same sex marriages.
Civil unions were first legal in 1999 in the state of Vermont as a means to provide the same state benefits, civil rights, and protections of the law to same-sex couples as married couples. Civil unions are therefore often sought after by same-sex couples who live in states which do not recognize same-sex marriage.
Civil union benefits vary among the handful of states that allow same-sex civil unions and may include benefits relating to title, tenure, wrongful death, loss of consortium, adoption, group health insurance, emergency care, property ownership, and tort actions under contracts.
Similar to civil unions, domestic partnerships are a form of relationship that gives limited state rights to both same-sex and opposite-sex couples who live together but wishes to remain unmarried or prohibited by law. Unlike civil unions, however, which are only legal in a handful of states, domestic partnerships are offered at either the state or city level, such as in New York and San Francisco. In addition, couples in domestic partnerships may receive domestic partner benefits at companies or organizations - such as employment benefits -- depending on the state.