What’s the Difference Between a Civil Union and a Marriage?

If you’re in a committed relationship that you want to put a legal seal on, you have a choice between getting married and being joined in what is known as a civil union. Though both accomplish the goal of providing certain legal protections to both partners, the two are different, and civil unions are an increasingly less common choice both because they don’t provide the same rights and because only a few states still offer them. Let’s take a look at the history of civil unions, and the difference between civil unions and marriage.

Civil unions started out as one of the few commitment options available for gay and lesbian couples, for whom marriage was not available. Civil unions provided those couples with several important protections, including:

  • Automatic designation as next-of-kin by medical professionals
  • Bereavement leave
  • Inheritance rights
  • Joint ownership of property, and community property rights if you’re in a community property state
  • Joint parental rights over children born to or adopted by the couple
  • Joint state tax filings
  • Right not to testify against your civil union partner
  • Right to seek financial support or alimony after the dissolution of the civil union
  • Right to your spouse’s employment benefits, including health insurance

Once the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal, the necessity for an alternative to marriage was diminished. Though some couples still opt for a civil union, they do so with the understanding that the rights that their union confer on them are only recognized at a state rather than a federal level. That means that people who have a civil marriage in one state may not be entitled to the rights that they confer in another. That’s one reason why they are becoming less and less common.

Now that same-sex marriage has been made lawful by the Supreme Court, there are only a couple of states that continue to offer civil unions. The state of New Jersey is one. Some states that previously offered civil unions have made it possible for couples to ‘upgrade’ to marriage, which allows the couple to file a joint tax return and get the benefits that entail, as well as to make medical decisions for each other.

If you would like more information on the advantages and disadvantages of a marriage or civil union, we can help. Contact our office today to set up an appointment to identify your best option.