Marriage vs. Civil Unions vs. Domestic Partnerships

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • In the United States, 14 states (CA, CT, DE, IA, ME, MD, MA, MN, NH, NJ, NY, RI, VT, WA) plus Washington DC allow same-sex marriage . According to Freedom to Marry, over 35 percent of the U.S. population now live a state where same-sex couples can marry or where their marriage is recognized.


    Some states, Colorado, Hawaii and Illinois allow civil unions. Oregon and Nevada have broad domestic partnerships. And WI has a limited domestic partnership. While these types of arrangements offer some legal protections, they do not provide the same benefits that marriage does.




    When two people marry, they are considered “family.” Under the law, they are provided with certain rights and responsibilities, for example, joint parental rights of children, “next-of-kin” visits in hospitals and the right to make medical decisions, joint filing of tax returns, rights to federal benefits such as Medicare and Social Security. These are just a few of the rights married couples have, there are many more benefits afforded couples under both state and federal laws – in 1997 the General Accounting Office listed 1049 benefits and protections available to married couples. However, in order to have access to these rights, you must be legally married.

    Add This Infographic to Your Website or Blog With This Code:


    Civil Unions


    States may create civil unions. Vermont first created civil unions in 2000 as a way to protect gay and lesbians wanting to get married. However, when same-sex marriage became legal in that state, civil unions were no longer necessary. A few states do provide for civil unions and provide some of the same rights and responsibilities of marriage. A major difference is that these rights and responsibilities do not extend beyond the state where the couple received the civil union. Because the federal government does not recognize civil unions, none of the federal benefits would extend to the couple.


    Domestic Partnerships


    A few states provide domestic partnerships, but these are different in each state. For example, in Oregon, a domestic partnership includes many rights and responsibilities,  but other states may keep a registry of those who want a domestic partnership but not offer many legal rights to couples. As with civil unions, there are no protections under federal law for those who have a domestic partnership.


    Each state has the right to define marriage. Some states have banned gay marriage, defining it as a union between a man and a woman. These states do not need to recognize a same-sex marriage, even if the couple legally married in a state where gay marriage is allowed. For example, if a same-sex couple marries in California, but then moves to Pennsylvania, their marriage may not be recognized or acknowledged.  


    Gay and lesbian couples can use attorneys to set up wills or medical power of attorneys to give their partner some rights, however, these can be contested in court and may end up costing the couple thousands of dollars that heterosexual couples do not need to spend as these rights go along with a legal marriage. This also doesn’t provide protection such as Social Security benefits or being able to file joint tax returns. While the federal government now allows same-sex couples these benefits, they must be legally married. And that means they must live in or travel to a state that allows same-sex marriage.


    Add This Infographic to Your Website or Blog With This Code:

    This year several states changed their laws to allow same-sex marriage, some because of legislation and some because of court cases. A number of other states have court cases pending based on discrimination. As these cases get resolved, it is possible that same-sex marriage will be legal in more states. According to several polls taken in July 2013, more than one-half of U.S. residents support making gay marriage legal in all 50 states.




    “Gallup Gay Marriage Poll Finds Majority of U.S. Citizens Would Support Nationwide Marriage Equality Law,” 2013, July 31, Staff Writer, Huffington Post


    “Marriage vs. Civil Union or Domestic Partnership,” Date Unknown, Staff Writer, Freedom to Marry




Published On: October 21, 2013