What is a civil union?
In Illinois, a civil union is a legal relationship between two people — either of the same or different sex — providing all of the legal obligations, responsibilities, protections and benefits that the law of Illinois grants to married couples. But a civil union is not a marriage; a civil union does not provide federal protections or responsibilities to couples who enter into one, and a civil union will be recognized only in certain other states, not by all states. Download a copy of the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act.
What rights and responsibilities will couples have if they get a civil union?
Couples who enter into a civil union in Illinois have every obligation and protection provided by Illinois law to married couples. These obligations, responsibilities, protections, and benefits may be found in Illinois statutes, administrative rules, policies, court decisions (common law), or any other source of state law. They include:
- The ability to own property jointly, including the presumption that the property obtained by either partner after joining in a civil union is owned jointly;
- Certain protections against losing your joint property to creditors;
- The right to make decisions about one another’s medical care if either of you is unconscious or otherwise unable to make those decisions;
- Rights to keep private your conversations and to avoid testifying against one another;
- The right to court-supervised distribution of property if you and your partner break up;
- The right to share the same nursing home room;
- Pension protections for surviving partners of teachers, police officers, and firefighters, and those other state, county, and municipal employees whose pension benefits pass to their spouses at death;
- Workers’ compensation benefits for partners of employees who are accidentally injured or killed at work;
- The ability to recover for your partner’s wrongful death;
- Intestacy rights to ensure that your surviving partner will receive some or all of your property if you die without a will.
If I have a civil union, is my employer required to offer spousal health insurance benefits to my partner?
Possibly. Whether they are required to offer the civil union partners of employees the same health insurance benefits they offer employees’ spouses depends on (1) the type of employer and (2) the type of benefits they offer to married employees.
If your employer is an Illinois state, county, or municipal employer, then they must provide your civil union partner the same health insurance benefits that they provide to spouses of employees.
If you work for the federal government, spousal health insurance — Federal Employee Health Benefits – are not available for your partner, because the Civil Union Act only provides you with state law protections and responsibilities. Several federal employment benefits are however available to same-sex domestic partners, including participation in the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program, so you should talk to your federal employer about what is available. Here is a chart describing these benefits put together by the United States Department of Justice.
All private employers can choose to provide spousal health insurance benefits to civil union partners, but it is not clear that all of them are required by law to do so. The first step in determining whether your employer is required to provide insurance to civil union partners is to learn whether they have a self-insured plan or an insured plan. Most large employers offer self-insured plans, while smaller employers are more likely to offer insured plans. To find out what kind of insurance your employer offers, check the plan description or contact the insurance company or your employer’s human resources office.
Insured plans that are governed by Illinois insurance law must provide the same health insurance benefits to civil union partners as those they provide to married spouses. For more information, see Civil Unions and Insurance Benefits, a document prepared by the Illinois Department of Insurance.
Self-insured plans may offer coverage to civil union partners, but they may not be required to do so, because of a federal law called ERISA (the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974) that many say preempts or overrides much of Illinois law. Employers with self-insured plans may be able to deny coverage to civil union partners, unless the terms of the existing plan or a collective bargaining agreement prevents them from doing so. There are, however, many reasons why they should voluntarily offer such coverage, even if no law requires it.