What are the Differences Between Civil Unions and Marriages?

Written by Christi Hayes and Fact Checked by The Law Dictionary Staff  

When the U.S. Supreme Court effectively made same-sex marriage legal across the United States in 2015, it seemed as though the debate between civil unions and marriages was over. However, while same-sex marriage is now legal in the U.S., civil unions and similar types of unions, such as domestic partnerships, still exist in some states. Understanding the differences between civil unions and marriage can be difficult, especially as the impact of the Supreme Court's landmark ruling continues to be felt. With the changing nature of this important legal issue kept firmly in mind, here are some of the differences between and similarities among civil unions and marriages.

Civil unions are marriage-like

Most states passed civil union laws in order to give same-sex couples most or all of the rights afforded to married couples without actually granting them the formal recognition of being married. In many states, civil unions were legalized prior to the legalization of same-sex marriage. Therefore, some states that had recognized civil unions subsequently converted those unions to marriages once they legalized same-sex marriage. In other words, civil unions are marriage-like without formally being recognized as marriages.

State benefits

Civil unions are offered on the state level and, therefore, the rights afforded to people in civil unions are limited to those that can be granted by states (as opposed to rights granted by the federal government or other states). Civil unions, therefore, often grant inheritance rights, spousal employment benefits, joint ownership rights, joint parental rights, spousal support rights, and the right not to testify against one's civil union partner.

Conflict with other laws

The biggest drawback of civil unions, however, is that they are often only recognized by the states where such civil unions are issued. Civil unions are not recognized under federal law and many states also don't recognize these unions. This lack of recognition is extremely important since married couples are entitled to a number of federal benefits through their spouses, including rights and benefits related to Social Security, Medicaid, and immigration. The only civil unions recognized by the federal government are those that have been converted into marriages. Likewise, because states are responsible for setting out their own marriage laws, civil unions may not be recognized in all states. This lack of recognition can pose major problems and challenges if a couple in a civil union decides to move to a state where their union is no longer recognized.

Domestic partnerships are civil unions

Domestic partnerships are often the same as civil unions. In most cases, the only difference between a civil union and a domestic partnership is that one term is used in certain states while the other term is used in the remaining states.

Now that same-sex marriage is legal in the U.S., the importance of civil unions and domestic partnerships has declined considerably. However, civil unions do continue to exist in a handful of states. People who remain in these unions should understand how their rights and benefits may have been impacted by the Supreme Court's ruling and whether marriage may be a more practical course of action given the questionable relevance of civil unions going forward.

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