Home Other Considerations A Full Guide to Civil Unions in the US

A Full Guide to Civil Unions in the US

A Full Guide to Civil Unions in the US

A Full Guide to Civil Unions in the USA

Civil unions, though considered antiquated and less popular by many, remain options for couples who are either unable or unwilling to envelope the proclamations and commitments of marriage. It offers many of the same legal protections and rights given to married couples to people in domestic partnerships or same-sex relationships. This guide explores civil unions in the USA: what they are, who is eligible, how to apply, and what benefits they offer.

What is a Civil Union?

A civil union is a legal partnership recognized between two people with similar considerations and responsibilities as those of married couples. It confers some of the same legal rights and protections as marriage, such as joint property ownership and inheritance rights, spousal support, and the ability to make medical decisions for one’s partner. However, since it is not federally recognized, its rights, benefits, and protections are not available in all states.

Civil unions originated as an alternative to marriage for same-sex couples when same-sex marriages were illegal. They became more widespread in the 1990s and 2000s as a solution for couples who could not legally marry, regardless of gender, due to state laws that forbade same-sex marriages. Nowadays, however, people of any gender can enter into civil unions, as some states who used to allow same-sex marriages also now offer civil unions to opposite-sex couples.

Who is eligible for a Civil Union?

Civil unions are available to anyone over the age of 18 who is not related to their partner, in a martially bind relationship, or in an existing civil union or domestic partnership. In most states where civil unions are legally recognized, same-sex couples can enter into civil unions.

Not every state offers civil unions as a legal alternative to marriage. The states that do vary in the level of protection the union offers, however. Some states provide full marriage equality in their civil unions, while others only offer the bare minimum legal rights. It is important to note that civil unions are not equal to marriage on a federal level.

Here are the states offering civil unions as a legal option as of August 2021,

– Connecticut
– Hawaii
– Illinois
– New Hampshire
– New Jersey

How to Apply for a Civil Union

The process of entering into a civil union varies from state to state and sometimes even by the county. However, the general requirements to enter into a civil union are similar across states. Usually, interested individuals can walk into the city hall or county clerk’s office and request civil union application forms.

The basic requirements are:

Proof of identification: It must be a valid, government-issued ID, such as a passport, driver’s license, or Social Security card. At the very least, both partners must provide proof of identity when applying.

Residential Status: You must be a legal resident of the state in which you want to register your civil union, for example, someone from Illinois cannot register a civil union in New Jersey or New Hampshire.

In most cases, both parties must present themselves in person at the clerk’s office to sign the civil union paperwork, but there is no waiting period in most cases. Once the application is completed and notarized, the couple hands it in, pays the fee, and waits for the official documents of their Civil Union.

Benefits of a Civil Union

The protections offered by civil unions cover the areas of marriage and more. Some of these benefits include:

Legal Protections: Civil unions offer various legal responsibilities and protections to people in the civil union. For example, a civil union spouse is entitled to the same health care benefits, medical privacy, and hospital visits as married couples. It also gives the couple rights to family leave, tax filing benefits, and protection in the event of a divorce. Most states recognize civil union couples as the equivalent of in-state marriage for the sake of taxation, inheritance, and witness requirements.

Parental rights: With a civil union, same-sex couples who have children are granted similar rights and responsibilities as married couples. This is particularly important in the event that the couple decides to separate or access custody rights. They will have access to legal rights to their children, which includes child custody and visitation rights.

Healthcare and Insurance: Civil unions allow employers to provide their employees with health and insurance benefits for their partners. Prior to the legalization of gay marriage in the US, it allowed a same-sex partner to be included in their partner’s healthcare insurance policies in some states where the answer was no for married couples.

Inheriting Estates: Civil unions allow same-sex and non-marital couples to inherit properties owned together or any other possession of the deceased partner in the event of one partner’s death. It also gives the surviving civil union partner rights over the other’s bank accounts, pensions, and life insurance policy.

Taxes: With civil unions, partnered taxpayers can file their state taxes jointly, enjoy the same income tax and estate tax benefits as married couples, and be entitled to the same federal tax benefits as married couples if registered in states with broad benefits of marriage.


Civil unions are an epitome of the perils of unequal rights that everyone deserves no matter what their sexual orientation is. These bonds provide those who choose not to be married or cannot due to state law or otherwise still offer a permanent, legal commitment to their loved ones. While they may have legal loopholes, it still offers its fair share of legal rights and protections on state levels. Regardless of what you think of them, civil unions provide couples with options, rights, and the ability to live their lives with less fear of losing their loved ones and their possessions when the worst happens.

While civil unions are not legally recognized in every state, many people are fighting for equal rights for the LGBT community.

Civil unions help individuals gain some of the benefits of marriage.

For instance, couples entering into a civil union may be able to get shared benefits through employers.

In addition, civil unions can help decide issues of inheritance and health care proxies in some states.

Some states are even finally beginning to recognize prenuptial agreements as they apply to civil unions.

However, these prenuptial agreements can get rather complicated.

Federal laws come into play with these agreements because those in civil unions are not entitled to the same rights as those that enter into marriage. However, couples entering into civil unions can enter into legally binding prenuptial agreements in some states.

In Civil Unions, prenuptial agreements are sometimes referred to as, pre-civil union agreements.

However, the ideas and rights provided in both documents are equally legal and binding, depending on the state where the union takes place.

For instance, New Jersey recognizes both documents equally. However, prenuptial agreements may not be recognized in a state that does not legally allow civil unions.

In states that do recognize them, they are very similar to all prenuptial agreements. They contain the same information as to the distribution of property and assets.

However, they cannot allow benefits that are not allowed by state law. While some states grant similar benefits to civil unions and to marriage, others do not.

For example, states may recognize the term “domestic partnership” which does not grant the same rights as “civil union.” However, those states do allow for a domestic partnership agreement, which can also distribute assets and property in the event of separation.

While the United States seems to be slow to recognize the rights of the LGBT community, other countries have been recognizing prenuptial agreements in civil unions for quite awhile. For example, the U.K. has been upholding those documents as legal, for quite some time.

While the courts may not be obliged to uphold them, they usually do as long as they are fair to both parties. This is interesting considering they have only recently begun to recognize prenuptial agreements in any form. In this case, there are equal rights provided to this entering into civil unions and those entering into marriage.

As more states legally allow civil unions, the need for information on pre-civil union agreements has increased. Most attorneys that work in prenuptial agreements, will also work with pre-civil union agreements as long as the document will be legally upheld in that state. In general, the two forms are very similar.

The only items that need extra consideration, are those that fall under federal laws. For example, pensions and tax breaks. However, anyone entering into a civil union in a state that legally allows it will find that they are also able to enter into a pre-civil union agreement to protect both parties’ financial interests.