What is the Difference Between a Same-Sex Marriage, a Domestic Partnership, and a Civil Union?

Under current law, same-sex marriages are legal in three states – Iowa, Massachusetts and Connecticut. Vermont has also approved same-sex marriages and they will become legal on September 1, 2009.  Same-sex marriages were legal for about five months in California, but now are not legal; of course, this development leaves many questions as to the status of the marriages that were legally performed in California during that timeframe, as well as to whether same-sex marriage will again become legal in California. In the two where same-sex marriages are currently legal, members of same-sex marriages are entitled to all of the same rights and benefits as members of heterosexual marriages.
 
Domestic partnerships essentially involve economic and other types of benefits that are available to persons who are unmarried; some types of domestic partnerships only involve same-sex couples, but other types can apply to heterosexual unmarried couples, as well. In some states, such as California, Oregon, Maine, and Washington D.C., state law governs and regulates the rights and benefits of being involved in domestic partnerships, and these rights and benefits vary widely. Therefore, what may be a benefit of a domestic partnership in Maine may not be a benefit in California. Plus, domestic partnerships typically do not entitled a couple to all of the same benefits that a married heterosexual couple enjoys. 
 
Furthermore, throughout the nation, there are private businesses and even governmental entities that offer varying degrees of domestic partnership benefits, such as health insurance, family leave, life insurance, etc. In other words, some companies extend to unmarried and/or same-sex couples some or all of the same job-related benefits to which married couples would be entitled. Of course, just as is the case for married couples, there may be restrictions and/or limitations on who qualifies for certain benefits. 
 
By contrast, in New Jersey and New Hampshire, same-sex couples can enter into civil unions, which are designed to be legally equivalent to marriages. Just as marriage affects a person’s rights and responsibilities, so do civil unions. For instance, if you are part of a civil union, you could file a joint state tax return with your partner, just as if you were married. Your partner would be entitled to inherit property from you upon on your death, just as a spouse could. Plus, civil unions make same-sex couples subject to certain legal proceedings in state courts, such as annulment, divorce, child custody, and visitation. However, members of civil unions are not entitled to any rights and benefits governed by federal law, like getting Social Security benefits or filing joint federal tax returns. 
 
One aspect of all three of these types of legal relationships – same-sex marriage, domestic partnerships, and civil unions – is the legality and recognition of these relationships in other states. While a same-sex marriage from Massachusetts might be legal in another state, for instance, the other state may still not legally acknowledge or recognize the marriage. In other states, the Massachusetts same-sex marriage might not be legal at all. As a result of conflicting or silent state laws regarding these legal relationships, you should keep in mind that enjoying any benefits of these relationships outside of the state in which they originated simply may not be possible.

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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