Geoff Kors (Executive Director, Equality California) gives expert video advice on: Where are civil unions legally recognized?; What's the difference between a "civil union" and a "domestic partnership"? and more...
What is the definition of a "civil union"?
A civil union tends to be a same sex relationship that gets all the state rights and benefits of marriage in that particular state, but is not recognized as a marriage in that state, and is not recognized by the federal government.
How do the rights and obligations granted in marriage differ from those granted in a civil union?
A civil union is different from marriage in several ways. First, civil unions get absolutely none of the government benefits that the federal government gives to married couples. So I'm talking over rights and benefits, including tax benefits, social security benefits, survivor benefits, and the right to immigrate for your spouse. If you're in a civil union, you get none of those. If you're married, you get all of those. So that's one major significant difference. Another major significant difference is, a civil union is clearly of secondary status, and it's the government way of saying “We're going to give you the rights and benefits, but you're not really equal to a married couple.” So it sends a stigma to people who are in civil unions in same sex relationships that the government doesn't treat you equally and you're given a second class status. No one grows up thinking “Wow, I want to be civil unionized,” or “domestic partner shipped.” A civil commitment sounds like what happens when you go into a mental institution, not when you go into a relationship. So there's a real stigma associated with any time when a government sets up a separate and unequal system which is what civil unions are.
Why would I want my relationship legally recognized as a civil union?
The benefits of a civil union is that it provides a way for the relationship to have most of the state benefits and responsibilities that come with marriage but are not available to same sex couples because they are denied marriage currently in those states. So, what a civil union does, is that it allows those couples to have protection from themselves and their families, be it insurance, be it being able to take care of their kids, being able to deal in a time of tragedy, make medical decisions for each other, all those things will come with a civil union that those two people wouldn't have otherwise.
Where are civil unions granted?
Vermont was the first state to pass civil unions, I think, probably in 2000, and it was the result of the Vermont Supreme Court ruling that discrimination against same sex couples in the marriage laws was unconstitutional, to the extent that same sex couples couldn't get the same rights and benefits that married people get. So the legislature, instead of doing the simple thing and allowing anyone to get married under state law, decided to create this whole separate institution called civil unions. And Vermont became the first state to do that. Connecticut followed, I think in 26 with civil unions, and New Jersey just followed in 27 by granting civil unions. Again in New Jersey it was after the court ruled that same sex couples have to have all of the same rights and benifits, and left it up to the legislature to figure out how to do that. And rather than change the definition of marriage to encompass all loving, committed couples, they created a whole new staute, that took tons of work and effort to create a second class status called civil unions, and that is just new in New Jersey. And the reality is, that they're finding in states that have civil unions, is that companies, insurance companies, other businesses, don't know what a civil union is, and they don't treat it equally. And only through marriage will we really have full equallity.
Where are civil unions legally recognized?
Civil unions are recognized currently in Vermont, Connecticut and New Jersey and they're are only recognized by state governments. Some states may recognize the civil unions of other states, if they already have them. Connecticut, New Jersey and Vermont might recognize civil unions, but since it's so new it's really unknown what they're going to do. California's Domestic Partnership law also says that it will recognize relationships that are similar to domestic partnerships in other states. California should recognize civil unions from Vermont, Connecticut or New Jersey because California's Domestic Partnership law is close to a Civil Unions law.
What's the difference between a "civil union" and a "domestic partnership"?
Civil unions are different than domestic partnership in that people in civil unions get virtually all the rights and benefits under state law that married couples get. Domestic partners usually get much fewer rights than people in civil unions. California is the one exception, where a domestic partnership is virtually the same as a civil union. There is a power of attorney for health care in several states - other states call it a health care directive - where you can fill out a form saying who has the right to make a decision for you in a medical emergency. If you're in a civil union then you actually can make decisions for each other without having to file a separate form. In a domestic partnership, depending again on the jurisdiction, you may have that right, but most likely you don't and will need to file the form separately.