Marriage, Civil Unions, Domestic Partnerships - What are the Legal Differences?

May 26, 2015


What Is Marriage?

Marriage is a legal status that is given to a couple by a state government. Regardless of where the marriage is issued, and subject to a few exceptions, it should be recognized by every state and nation around the world. Marriage is desirable because it has several unique rights, protections, and obligations at both the state and federal level for both spouses.


What Is a Civil Union?

A civil union is a legal status that provides many of the same protections as marriage does to both same-sex or heterosexual couples. However, these protections are only available at the state level. Federal protections such as tax and social security benefits are unavailable to the civilly united. States that have domestic partnership or civil union laws include Colorado, Hawaii, and Illinois.


What Is Domestic Partnership?

A domestic partnership is another legal status that gives some of the rights of marriage, regardless of whether the couple is same-sex or not. A few states have adopted domestic partnerships as a way to give couples the benefit of some rights they otherwise may not enjoy. States which use domestic partnerships in place of same-sex marriage include: Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, and Wisconsin. However, much like civil unions, it is important to keep in mind that not all the rights of marriage are the same for domestic partnerships.


What Are the Differences between Marriage and Civil Unions?

There are significant differences between the benefits and responsibilities of marriage and civil unions.


People who are married usually enjoy more benefits than those in civil unions, including:

  • Legal recognition of the relationship in other states

  • The ability to divorce in any state, regardless of where married

  • Tax benefits available to married couples only

  • Immigration benefits when petitioning for a non-citizen spouse

  • Federal benefits, such as social security, medical, and life insurance 


There are several options for same-sex couples who cannot legally gain the benefits and protections of married persons.  These include:

  • Second parent adoption of your children

  • Creating durable or medical power of attorney in your partner

  • Crafting a durable and specific will

  • Planning your estate carefully


Where Can I Go to Marry My Same-Sex Partner?

As of 2014, there are 19 states that recognize same-sex marriage. These states are: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and Washington D.C.

The number of states that recognize same-sex marriages is frequently increasing, and several other states are either contemplating same-sex marriage legislation or currently involved in legal challenges over their same-sex marriage laws.

Do I Need an Attorney to Protect My Family and Partner?

This area of the law is frequently evolving. Because of the complexity and variation of these legal systems, consulting with a family lawyer in your area would be of immeasurable benefit. A lawyer can explain all your options and help you understand what types of legal strategies are right for you and your family.


Fanning Law, LLC Can Help

The facts of each case are unique and the laws surrounding marriage-like relationships are complicated.  This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. It is not legal advice. For more information about your specific questions, contact Bill Fanning at Fanning Law, LLC - The Offices of William C. Fanning, Jr. - 301.934.3620 or at  


Article provided by Legal Match.  Authored by Matthew Izzi, LegalMatch Legal Writer and Attorney at Law, Last Modified: 05-05-2015 02:16 PM PDT



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