In 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court handed down its decision in Baker v. State, holding that same-sex couples must be granted the same benefits and protections that heterosexual couples received under state law. The court instructed the state legislature to determine how to grant same-sex couples such benefits and protections but didn't require the state to allow same-sex couples to be legally married. The solution was to create a separate but equal (at least at the state level) process.
Thus, civil unions in Vermont allowed same-sex couples to receive the same state benefits and legal protections of marriage (while federal marriage equality would come later). Civil unions eventually were replaced with marriage.
The following is a brief history of civil unions in Vermont.
The Civil Union is Born
The next year (2000), the state passed a bill allowing same-sex couples to enter into civil unions. Town clerks were authorized to give licenses to same-sex couples for these unions in the same way they would give out marriage licenses. Same-sex couples could be joined in civil union by anyone authorized to perform marriages under state law and would have to divorce under state law in the same way heterosexual couples would.
Same-sex couples in civil unions in Vermont are entitled to all the benefits available under state law to married couples, including medical decisions, estate inheritance, overseeing burials, transferring properties, and certain tax breaks. Employers are required to treat civil union couples in the same way they treated other married couples, in matters including health benefits, marital status discrimination law, workers' compensation benefits, taxation, family leave benefits and wage assignment laws.
Civil Union Replaced by Same-Sex Marriage
The Vermont civil union bill was a landmark in the fight over gay marriages. For the first time, a state allowed gay couples to have all the same benefits as married couples under state law. In 2009, Vermont went one step further and became the fourth state to approve same-sex marriages. The civil union is no longer available in Vermont, but any civil union entered into before September 1, 2009 is still honored.
Civil unions and the similar domestic partnership option are still offered in some states, such as Colorado, even though same-sex marriage is now legal at the federal level. Civil unions are also still available in Hawaii, Illinois, and New Jersey. The states of Oregon and Nevada provide broad domestic partnership benefits.
Same-sex marriage laws continuously changed up until the Supreme Court's 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision. And since marriage is no longer restricted to just heterosexual couples, the relevance of both civil unions and domestic partnerships likely will wane.
Getting Married (and Divorced) in Vermont: The Basics
The eligibility requirements and processes for marriage in Vermont are the same, regardless of sexual orientation or gender:
If you're in a civil union and wish to split up, you must ask the court for a civil union dissolution. The process is similar to a traditional divorce but uses slightly different forms and different terminology. There are additional requirements for non-residents seeking a civil union dissolution.
Have Questions About Same-Sex Marriage in Vermont? An Attorney Can Help
While civil unions in Vermont are a thing of the past -- although existing civil unions are still honored -- marriage is no longer restricted to just opposite-sex couples. Still, every situation is different and you may have questions about your civil union or related matters. Consider speaking with an experienced family law attorney near you for expert help.