Understanding Civil Unions vs Domestic Partnership Law

Understanding the difference between a civil union, domestic partnership, and same sex marriage can be confusing. Five states have decided to adopt civil unions as of this writing. These civil unions are available to opposite sex and same sex couples. A civil union allows a couple's relationship to be legally recognized. A civil union grants same sex couples the ability to enter into a legally recognized relationship that gives them the same fundamental rights that are granted to traditional married couples. It provides each partner in a gay marriage with legal rights similar to the rights granted to spouses in traditional marriages.

A domestic partnership often only gives same sex spouses limited financial rights. These rights include the ability to receive certain pension and health insurance benefits and file joint state tax returns. Domestic partners may be able to register a domestic partnership at the local level in some cites or counties.

Same-sex marriage in some states allows a marriage to be legally recognized between two spouses of the same gender. Same sex marriage grants the same rights and benefits under state law as traditionally married couples, such as tax relief, application of family laws, decision-making power in medical emergencies, inheritance rights, state spousal benefits, and spousal privilege in court testimony.

The primary difference between traditional marriage and same-sex marriage is that same-sex marriage doesn't offer federal benefits and protections to spouses. The federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) permits states to decide whether or not to recognize a same-sex union that is recognized in another state. However, same-sex marriage is not recognized at the federal level. Federal benefits don't apply to same sex marriages, including Social Security benefits, health insurance, veterans' benefits, Medicaid, estate taxes, hospital visitation, pension benefits, retirement savings, family leave, and immigration policy.

Civil Union vs Domestic Partnership

Differences between a civil union and a domestic partnership will vary by state law. Domestic partners often have more limited rights than in a civil union. In New Jersey, for example, a civil union creates more shared responsibility for debt and more shared rights to property.

Currently, the Internal Revenue Service is not recognizing same sex marriage or a same sex civil union. This means that the couple is not eligible to receive the federal benefits that are based on marriage or file a joint federal tax return.

Civil Union vs Marriage

Those entering into a civil union do not receive the same rights that are afforded to people in a traditional marriage. While state laws vary, a civil union will not be recognized and entitled to protection under federal laws. However, a civil union typically grants more rights than a registered domestic partnership.

Domestic Partnership Benefits In California:

  • Domestic partners are permitted identical employee benefits as those permitted in a traditional marriage. These benefits include retirement and health plans. However, because the federal government has yet to acknowledge a domestic partnership, domestic partners are not entitled to the same rights as a traditional married couple in relation to the federal retirement plans.

  • Traditional marriage spouses are eligible for an exemption from the estate and federal gift tax when one spouse transfers his/her real estate to both partners, domestic partners are not given this exemption.

  • A domestic partner can bring a wrongful-death lawsuit in the event of his/her partner's wrongful death.

  • A domestic partner is allowed to participate in the intestate division of his/her partner's estate, just as married couples can.

  • Domestic partners are allowed to keep communications privileged. This means they do not have to testify against one another.

  • The standard community property laws in California apply to those who registered domestic partnership.

States Allowing Same Sex Marriage

  • Washington
  • Iowa
  • New York
  • Vermont
  • New Hampshire
  • Maine
  • Massachusetts
  • Connecticut
  • Maryland
  • D.C.

States Providing for Same Sex Civil Unions

  • Illinois
  • Rhode Island
  • New Jersey
  • Delaware

One State Provides Limited Domestic Partnerships For Same Sex Couples

  • Wisconsin

States Providing Broad Domestic Partnerships for Same Sex Couples

  • California
  • Nevada
  • Oregon

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