A civil union is a legal relationship between two people that provides legal protections to the couple. But civil unions are not the same as marriages and do not 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. In fact, civil unions were introduced specifically for same-sex couples who wanted to get married but were denied the institution.
Civil Unions and Same-Sex Marriage in the States
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 U.S. Supreme Court's landmark U.S. v. Windsor decision in 2013 held that those in a same-sex marriage are entitled to federal benefits. However, for couples in a civil union, this ruling had no effect.
As of April 2015, the list of states that allow civil unions (as distinct from marriage) stands at four: New Jersey, Illinois, Hawaii and Colorado. 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.
The laws surrounding civil unions are constantly changing, and a family law attorney in your state may be one of the best sources for information on the current local laws in your area. For more information, FindLaw's Same Sex Marriage section is a constantly-updated resource.
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.