Marriage & Civil Unions

How is a civil union different from marriage?

Couples who have a civil union will not have any of the protections or responsibilities federal law provides to married couples. These include social security survivors’ and spousal benefits, federal veterans’ spousal benefits, immigration rights associated with marriage, federal spousal employment benefits, the right to file joint federal tax returns, exemptions from income tax on your partner’s health benefits, the federal exemption from inheritance tax, and many other federal protections which are denied same-sex couples whether legally joined in a civil union or a civil marriage.

Also, most other states will not recognize the legal status of your civil union, even though they would recognize the Illinois marriage of a different-sex couple. This means that when you travel or if you move to another state or country, your union may not be recognized. As a result, you should considering taking certain precautions before you travel, such as executing health care and financial powers of attorney and carrying those with you.

Finally, the most important difference between civil unions and marriage for many individuals is the second-class nature of civil unions. Civil marriage is a widely recognized and respected social structure for two people who have committed to build their life together. Civil unions are not universally understood. It is unclear whether they will be given the same level of respect as marriage in Illinois and elsewhere. What is already clear is that different-sex couples get to choose whether to enter a civil marriage or a civil union; lesbian and gay male couples are given only the civil union option.

What if my partner and I really want to get married? Should we wait for marriage to be legal in Illinois? And if we enter a civil union, will that prevent us from marrying?

Whether to join in a civil union is a personal choice, but not taking advantage of the important protections offered by civil unions may leave you and your partner at risk in certain important ways. For example, a civil union will guarantee that you will be able to make medical decisions for your partner if he or she is unconscious even if you are unable to show the hospital staff an executed power of attorney. It is very unlikely that entering a civil union now would prevent you from marrying, when doing so becomes legal in Illinois in the future. In Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut where civil unions were available prior to marriage, couples who had already joined in a civil union were able to marry once same-sex couples were able to marry.

I got married in Iowa (or another state or country where same-sex couples can marry or enter into a civil union or similar legally-recognized relationship). What does this mean in Illinois?

Once the civil union law takes effect, Illinois will recognize as a civil union any marriage, civil union, or another “substantially similar” legal relationship (other than common law marriage) which was legally entered into in another state or country. For example, some states (currently California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington), allow same-sex couples to enter “domestic partnerships” which provide those couples the same rights, benefits, and responsibilities as marriage. Such domestic partnerships are substantially similar to a civil union, even if the name used is different, so they will be recognized as a civil union in Illinois.

You do not need to go through the process of receiving a license and certifying the union in order to have the protections provided by a civil union.

What if I would like to have a civil union in Illinois even though I married elsewhere?

Couples who are already married or joined in a civil union or similar relationship cannot enter into a new civil union in Illinois. That is the same law that applies to different-sex couples – once they marry in another state, they don’t remarry here. Because Illinois will recognize your marriage, civil union, or comprehensive domestic partnership as a civil union, you don’t need to enter into a new Illinois civil union; you’re already in one. If you are unsure whether your existing legal relationship is “substantially similar” to a civil union, then you may want to seek advice from a lawyer.

Once we have a civil union in Illinois, can we get married in a state or country that allows lesbian, gay, and bisexual couples to marry?

It depends on the law of that state or country. Entering into multiple civil unions or marriages in different states or countries could create problems down the road if you decide to dissolve your legal relationship.

Will my partner and I have more rights if we get married in Iowa than if I have a civil union in Illinois?

Not in Illinois, if you are a same-sex couple. The State of Illinois will recognize your marriage as a civil union and give you all the protections and responsibilities described above. But it won’t consider you married. The federal government does not recognize any union between persons of the same-sex, whether it is marriage or a civil union.

If you are a resident of Illinois, it may be easier to dissolve a civil union in Illinois than trying to dissolve a marriage in another state.