What is the difference between a same-sex marriage, a civil union and a common-law couple?

Before the decision of the United States Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges (in English)  extended the right to marriage to same-sex couples, some states allowed same-sex marriage, while others only offered legal recognition in the form of civil unions and unmarried partners. Below is general information about same-sex marriage, civil unions and domestic partners.

Same-sex marriage

Same-sex marriage refers to legally recognized marriage between two same-sex spouses. Since the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell,  same-sex spouses have the same rights and benefits as spouses of opposite sexes who are legally married, including tax advantages, power to make medical decisions in emergencies, access to laws on domestic relations and inheritance law.

Marriage Defense Law

In 2013, a decision of the United States Supreme Court ruled that key provisions of the Marriage Defense Act (DOMA) were unconstitutional (in English) . This means that married couples of gays and lesbians living in states that allow same-sex marriage are holders of the same federal rights and benefits granted to married heterosexual couples. At that time, the Court did not invalidate state prohibitions on same-sex marriage, but simply decided that the federal government should recognize same-sex marriages recognized at the state level.

Obergefell v. Hodges

In 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled that state bans on same-sex marriage and the refusal to recognize same-sex marriages in other states violated constitutional rights to due process and equal protection. As a result, this decision makes the possibility of getting married available to same-sex persons throughout the country and requires states to recognize same-sex marriages legally celebrated in other states, providing the same rights and benefits as heterosexual couples.

Alternatives to traditional marriage

Prior to Obergefell’s decision , many states expanded the legal rights available to people in same-sex relationships through civil unions and unmarried partners instead of allowing their marriage. Since Obergefell  requires that same-sex marriages be allowed, there is no clarity as to whether these alternatives will continue to be relevant or necessary. However, these alternatives are still available and some couples continue to maintain relationships through these legal figures.

Civil unions

Civil unions give legal recognition to couple relationships and give legal rights to its members similar to those granted to the spouses of a marriage. The following states (in English) allow civil unions between people of the same sex: Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey and Vermont.

In 1990, Vermont was the first state to legalize civil unions between same-sex couples as a way to give same-sex couples the same benefits, civil rights and legal protections as married couples.

The benefits of civil unions vary in the handful of states that allow them and may include benefits related to the title and possession of property, ability to sue for the death of the couple caused by negligence, loss of consortium, adoption , health insurance, etc. .

Couples in fact

Like civil unions, de facto couples are a form of relationship that gives limited state rights to same-sex and opposite-sex couples who live together but do not wish to marry or whose marriage is prohibited by law. However, unlike civil unions, the legal status of a domestic partner is available at both the state and municipal levels (New York and San Francisco are examples). The following states , as well as the District of Columbia, recognize de facto couples: California, Hawaii, Maine, Oregon and Nevada.

Get help with your same-sex marriage, civil union or domestic partnership

Marriage laws are constantly changing. If you have any questions about same-sex marriage, civil unions or unmarried partners, it is a good idea to contact an expert family law attorney to assist you.

Talk to a lawyer qualified in Family Law today

This article is intended to be useful and informative, but legal issues can become complicated and stressful. A lawyer qualified in family law can attend to your particular legal needs, explain the law and represent you in court. Take the first step now and contact a qualified family law attorney near you to discuss your particular legal situation.

by Abdullah Sam
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