The Difference Between Marriage and Civil Unions

Much is made in the media about the differences between marriage and civil unions but what exactly are those differences and are they significant? People, presumably, get married because they are in love and seek to make a life time commitment to each other. People enter domestic partnerships for the same presumptive reasons. However, a marriage brings certain legal benefits that domestic partners do not enjoy in all states.

The Legal Benefits of Marriage

There are financial and personal benefits that married couple enjoy as a result of their legal union. Those benefits include:

  • Tax Benefits: married couples may file join tax returns with the IRS and with the state. Often, this provides tax benefits to the two individuals who have entered the marriage.
  • Estate Planning and Other Benefits: surviving spouses are entitled to inherit all of their deceased spouse’s assets without incurring any taxes.
  • Health Care Benefits: Married spouses who work for qualifying employers may be entitled to family leave under the Family Medical Leave Act to care for a sick spouse. Spouses may also have the right to make certain medical decisions for a sick spouse and to have unlimited visitation privileges while a spouse is hospitalized.
  • Citizenship: non-U.S. citizens who marry United State citizens may have certain citizenship benefits that unmarried couples do not enjoy.
  • Divorce: while this seems an unlikely benefit to marriage, married couples enjoy the certainty of a legal system that can dissolve their marriage and distribute their assets. Unmarried couples do not enjoy this certainty.

The Benefits of a Domestic Partnership are Limited

While some states recognize civil unions or domestic partnerships, many states do not recognize these unions and do not provide domestic partners with the same legal rights as married couples. Further, according to the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) the states that do not recognize domestic partnerships are under no obligation to recognize domestic partnerships that were entered into in other states. That means that if a couple enters a legally valid civil union or domestic partnership in one state and travels to another state that does not recognize their  legal relationship and one partner becomes ill, the other partner does not have the legal right to visit in the hospital or to act as next of kin.

Further, since federal law does not recognize civil unions or domestic partnerships, federal tax returns are filed separately and partners may not be entitled to the same benefits as married couples. Other benefits such as social security and company retirement benefits may also be limited.

Finally, some people argue that marriage provides spouses with social recognition of their union that domestic partners and couples in civil unions do not enjoy.

For all of these reasons, there has been a movement in many states over the past decade for same sex couples to be able to be legally married rather than to simply be allowed to enter civil unions or domestic partnerships. Currently, only Massachusetts, Iowa and Connecticut allow same sex couples to be legally married with all of the benefits of the marriage union that is bestowed on heterosexual couples. Other states, such as California, are currently litigating the right of same sex couples to marry. The difference in legal benefits and social status are the forces driving the movement toward same sex marriages in many states.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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