What Is a Civil Union or Domestic Partnership and How Does It Differ from Marriage?

civil union or domestic partnership differences from marriage

Civil unions and domestic partnerships are legal relationships between two people who are not married, but they are not recognized in all states. In most cases, civil unions or domestic partnerships became legally recognized largely for same-sex couples who were unable to legally marry. Over time, many states evolved from recognizing same-sex civil unions or domestic partnerships to permitting same-sex couples to marry. 

Same-sex marriage became legal throughout the United States in 2015 with the landmark Supreme Court case of Obergefell v. Hodges. But the status of civil unions and domestic partnerships remains somewhat murky.

Legal Rights: Marriage vs. Domestic Partnerships

Marriage triggers a number of legal rights and benefits. These include rights of survivorship and other inheritance rights, the right to visit the partner in the hospital, and to make emergency medical decisions for them. Marriage provides access to domestic relations laws, as well as spousal benefits, including workers compensation, social security and life insurance, and the spousal testimonial privilege, among others. A marriage in any state in the United States is recognized in all other states. Since marriages are legally recognized federally, a married couple is considered “family” and the marriage confers all rights afforded to family members.

By contrast, state law determines the requirements to establish the legal status of the civil union or domestic partnership (if it is recognized at all), and what rights and protections are conferred to the couple. Those rights and protections are generally limited in comparison to those afforded to married couples.

Civil unions and domestic partnerships are not federally recognized in the United States, which reduces the rights afforded to domestic partners even in a state that does recognize the relationship. For example, because domestic partnerships are not federally recognized, a domestic partner who is a U.S. citizen cannot petition for their non-citizen partner, and domestic partners may not have an automatic inheritance right. Even if a domestic partner inherits their partner’s assets, those assets may be subject to federal taxes, unlike assets inherited by a married spouse.

Where afforded state recognition, the most common rights conferred on domestic partners or partners in a civil union are the rights of hospital visitation and medical decision making, rights to make funeral decisions and some limited inheritance rights. But even in states that recognize them, domestic partnerships or civil unions are not available to everyone. Some state laws recognize domestic partnerships only for same-sex couples, while others recognize them for opposite-sex couples.

Obtaining Recognition for Civil Unions or Domestic Partnerships

In states that recognize civil unions or domestic partnerships, usually the partners must live together for a period of time, share a domestic life together, and not be married to anyone else. In some states, to register as a domestic partner, both partners must not have been in a domestic partnership with another individual for a period of time prior to registration. They must register their partnership or union with the state or local municipality, often with payment of a registration fee.

Even if a state does not recognize civil unions or domestic partnerships, some employers will allow employees to designate a partner to receive employer benefits such as health insurance, family or bereavement leave, but this is up to the discretion of the employer. Since Obergefell, many employers have dropped these benefits and now require partners to marry in order to obtain employment benefits.

Termination of Domestic Partnerships and Civil Unions

In many states, domestic relations laws apply only to married couples, which gives rise to difficulties when domestic partners want to terminate their relationship. Although it may be easy to legally sever the relationship – in many states termination only requires one partner to file a document stating the intent to terminate with the office where the partnership was registered – there are no specific laws regarding division of property, custody or visitation arrangements, or spousal maintenance. This can mean that when the former domestic partners disagree on these issues, it may be more difficult (and costly) to obtain guidance from the court because there is no action for divorce for domestic partners; each issue may need to be litigated separately, sometimes in separate courts.

If you and your partner are considering entering into or terminating a civil union or domestic partnership, or if you have questions about your legal rights under an existing relationship, get help from a qualified attorney familiar with your state’s laws. Use our site to post your legal need and to find an attorney who can help.

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Posted - 05/02/2019