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 (at the state level) as legally married opposite-sex couples, including tax relief, emergency medical decision-making power, access to domestic relations laws, state spousal benefits (including workers' compensation,) inheritance rights and spousal testimonial privilege.
The most significant difference between same-sex marriage and traditional marriage is that only marriage offers federal benefits and protections to spouses. Federal areas affecting include Social Security benefits, veterans' benefits, health insurance, Medicaid, hospital visitation, estate taxes, retirement savings, pensions, family leave, and immigration law. For example, a woman whose health insurance covers her female partner must pay federal taxes on the total employer cost for that insurance.
While 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, same-sex marriage is not federally protected and has not yet been fully tested in the courts.
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.