A civil union is a legal relationship between two people that provides legal protections to the couple. But civil unions aren't exactly the same as marriages and don't provide federal protections, benefits, or responsibilities to couples. Truth is, civil unions have largely been phased-out in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2015 decision that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. Before this ruling, civil unions were introduced specifically for same-sex couples who wanted to get married but were denied the institution.
Since the Court's ruling, some states have either stopped providing for civil unions or have automatically converted existing civil unions to marriages. But it's still offered in a few states. The following is a summary of which states have civil unions.
Civil Unions and Same-Sex Marriage: Judicial History
Vermont created the first civil union law in 2000. This came after the Vermont Supreme Court's Baker v. State decision held same-sex couples must be granted the same benefits and protections that heterosexual couples received under state law. At the time, it was a radical political move to allow same-sex couples the right to join in a civil union. But in just a few short years, more and more states began to allow the practice, or sometimes, even go further, by legalizing same-sex marriage.
Same-sex union laws changed frequently prior to the Supreme Court's 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges ruling. Before that, the Supreme Court's landmark U.S. v. Windsor decision in 2013 held that those in a same-sex marriage are entitled to federal benefits, those overturning key parts of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). However, for couples in a civil union, this ruling had no effect.
Although the terms have sometimes been interchanged, civil unions should not be confused with domestic partnerships. While civil unions provide all of the state benefits of marriage, domestic partnerships have typically been more limited and not as targeted to same-sex couples.
States That Currently Have Civil Unions
The list of states that allow civil unions (as distinct from marriage) stands at four, even though all states are required by federal law to recognize marriage equality for same-sex couples:
Other states, including Rhode Island and Vermont, converted all civil unions to legal marriages.
State Bans and Local Ordinances
Prior to the Obergefell ruling, 13 states had laws on the books banning same-sex marriages or civil unions, all of which were overturned by the Court. Even some cities and municipalities dove into the debate by passing local same-sex marriage ordinances (which are now void).
The civil union law passed in Illinois is illustrative of statutes in other states. In Illinois, a civil union is a legal relationship between two people that provides most of the legal obligations, protections, and benefits that the law of Illinois grants to married couples.
Talk to an Attorney Before You Enter Into a Civil Union or Marriage
With the rise of civil unions and legalization of same-sex marriage, the laws relating to personal relationships have been in flux. To keep up with the changes and, more importantly, to find out what they may mean for you, consider speaking with a qualified family law attorney in your area.