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Civil Unions vs. Same-Sex Marriage: All You Need to Know


Since that momentous day on June 26, 2015, when the United States Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage be declared legal and recognized in all states, same-sex couples in the United States have finally been able to enter into full legal marriages, afforded the same rights and protections as everyone else.

Before 2015, however, many states either did not recognize same-sex marriages or offered a less privileged arrangement known as a “civil partnership” or “civil union”. Though these days, most committed couples in same-sex relationships will likely opt for marriage instead of a civil union – as marriage guarantees more rights – there are still some who may opt for a civil union instead.

So what’s the difference between a civil union and marriage, and what rights and privileges are couples in either arrangement entitled to?

Civil Union

Civil unions differ from marriage, largely by the key difference that civil unions are only recognized at the level of the state in which they are entered into. This means that a couple who enters a civil union in one state will not have the same legal rights and protections should they move to another state.

Additionally, post-2015, only four states – Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, and New Jersey – continue to issue new civil unions to couples.

Being a state-level legal arrangement, civil unions are privy to many of the legal rights provided by a marriage, but not all. The following are state-level rights that are afforded to most civil unions and marriages in the United States:

  • Inheritance: If one spouse passes away, the other is able to inherit their assets without paying an estate tax.
  • Alimony: In the event that a marriage or civil union is dissolved, one spouse is able to pursue alimony payments from the other.
  • Spousal Privilege: In a court of law, spouses within a marriage or civil union cannot be forced to testify against one another.
  • Benefits of Employment: If one spouse receives benefits such as health insurance as part of compensation from their place of employment, the other spouse is able to receive the coverage as well. Employers can also offer bereavement leave to their employees if the employee’s spouse through either a marriage or civil union passes away.
  • Healthcare: If one spouse is unable to make their own medical decisions, the other may have the right to do so on their behalf. Marriages and civil unions also allow both people visitation rights if one is hospitalized.
  • Parental rights: Those in marriages and civil unions are entitled to joint parental rights over any children shared between them.
  • Property Rights: Married or civilly united couples may act as joint owners of property, and if one person in the relationship passes away, the other has right of survivorship over jointly-owned property.
  • State Taxes: Both marriages and civil unions allow a couple to file their state taxes jointly. Again, however, since civil unions are state-level, couples with these arrangements still need to file federal taxes separately.


A civil union entitles couples to the above rights and protections within the state where their union was issued. A marriage, on the other hand, grants these rights throughout the country, and all states must recognize them.

Moreover, marriage offers additional federal rights on top of the all of the above, including:

  • Immigration: Americans who are married or engaged to non-citizens can petition the government for their future or current spouse’s United States citizenship through the K-1 visa process.
  • Social Security: The Social Security Administration (SSA) recognizes all marriages, but may or may not recognize a civil union, which can make social security benefits a bit difficult for couples in civil unions.
  • Federal Taxes: Married couples are able to file jointly for their federal taxes.
  • Veteran Benefits: Spouses of veterans are often able to receive health coverage, programs for home loans, and assistance with tuition costs.

In most cases, marriage is generally the preferred option, but depending on your preferences and situation, it may also be worth considering a civil union. Talk to one of our lawyers about the possible benefits and drawbacks of each arrangement, to see what makes the most sense to you and your life partner.

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