Civil Union

Civil union is a legally created relationship that is similar to marriage, though it provides protections and benefits only at the state level, as the federal government does not recognize such unions. The civil union was originally created by some states to afford a marriage-like institution for same-sex couples when marriage was not an alternative. Not all states recognize civil unions. To explore this concept, consider the following civil union definition.

Definition of Civil Union


  1. A relationship that is legally recognized by a state government, which affords same-sex couples many of the rights and responsibilities of marriage.


2000    First offered in the U.S. by the state of Vermont

What is a Civil Union

A civil union is a status given to couples in certain states, affording them many protections enjoyed by married couples. The protections and benefits of a civil union are only offered at the state level, as federal laws do not recognize the legality of civil unions. As of 2015, only four states recognize civil unions: New Jersey, Illinois, Hawaii, and Colorado. Even in these states, the laws are constantly changing.

In 2000, Vermont became the first state to create civil union laws in order to recognize same-sex relationships. However, the state made same sex marriage legal in 2009, which ended its recognition of civil unions. Any civil unions entered into prior to that time however, remain valid.

Civil Union vs. Marriage

The benefits of civil union vary according to the laws of each state that recognizes this legally-created relationship. No matter which state a couple lives in, however, there are no federal benefits of a civil union. In general, couples who obtain civil unions are expected to support each other in the same manner as a married couple, and they may also be entitled to:

  • State tax benefits available to married couples
  • Eligibility for employment benefits, such as spouse coverage under health insurance
  • Automatic designation as next-of-kin for healthcare purposes
  • Eligibility for family leave for medical problems
  • Guardianship of the partner should he or she become incapacitated
  • Community property rights, and joint ownership of property
  • Inheritance rights normally afforded to married couples
  • Right to seek spousal support (alimony) following dissolution of the civil union
  • Equal access to child support, child custody, and distribution of property in the event of a separation

Although civil unions are governed by state law, federal law, which does not recognize the union, has a great impact on the couple’s rights. For instance, while couples in a civil union can file joint taxes with their state, they cannot file federal taxes jointly. Married spouses have rights to each other’s social security benefits, while couples in a civil union do not. Finally, while marriage, no matter where it is performed, is recognized in every state, couples in a civil union risk having their relationship not recognized if they move to another state.

For example:

Joan and Lisa have been in a civil union, granted by the state of Vermont, for 18 years. Six years ago, the couple moved to a state that does not recognize civil unions, where they purchased a home together. The women have spent the last few years furnishing that home as a couple, and have commingled their finances. When Lisa is killed in a car accident, Joan is surprised to discover that, because the state does not recognize civil unions, the couple’s belongings do not automatically transfer to her, but are subject to probate, where Lisa’s relatives are considered her heirs.

Civil unions, where allowed, provided certain rights and protections to same-sex couples who were denied the right to marry. Many, though not all, states allowing civil unions converted those unions already created to marriages after the U.S. Supreme Court declared that banning same-sex marriage is unconstitutional in 2015.

Vermont’s Quest for Civil Union Rights

In July 1997, civil lawsuits were filed by three same-sex couples who had been denied marriage licenses in three separate towns in the state of Vermont. The couples sued those towns, as well as the state, claiming that laws denying them the right to marry violated the state’s constitution. The defendants immediately asked the trial court to dismiss the lawsuits, based on the fact that Vermont laws made it impossible for relief to be granted. The trial court judge dismissed the cases, ruling that Vermont’s marriage statutes did not allow same-sex marriage, and went on to say that the institution of marriage served the public by promoting “the link between procreation and child rearing.”

The plaintiffs appealed the matter to the Vermont Supreme Court (Baker v. Vermont, 744 A.2d 864 (Vt. 1999)), which heard the case November 18, 1998. Among other things, the plaintiffs brought into question the trial court’s reliance on a link between marital status, procreation, and raising children, pointing out that Vermont laws allowed same-sex couples to adopt children, and to parent children who had been conceived by both natural and artificial means.

On December 20, 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court handed down a ruling requiring the state to guarantee the same rights, protections, and benefits afforded to male-female spouses to same-sex couples. The court stopped short of granting the plaintiffs’ requests for marriage licenses, alluding to the possibility of a future case being brought to show that, even if the state is granting equal benefits and protections, the denial of marriage licenses to same-sex couples effectively denies such individuals constitutionally protected rights.

A year after the Supreme Court’s decision in Baker, the state’s legislature specifically defined marriage as the union between a man and a woman, as the language in the prior law had proven to be vague. At the same time, however, Vermont lawmakers enacted legislation providing civil unions for same-sex couples.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Child Custody – The care, control, and maintenance of a child, often awarded by the court.
  • DefendantA party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • PlaintiffA person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.