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What Is a Civil Union? | Explore Law Firms and Legal Advice

A civil union is a legal way to denote two partners as a couple.

“It is something that anyone can access to demonstrate their lifetime commitment, which means they would get the benefits of a lifetime commitment,” says Zanita Fenton, a family law professor at the University of Miami School of Law.

A couple with a civil union can obtain some of the same benefits and protections – as well as legal responsibilities – as married couples. Some people might want to be in a civil union before marriage, or forever.

What Is a Civil Union?

“A civil union is a legal arrangement, which two people can voluntarily enter into, that gives them many of the same rights and privileges as marriage,” wrote Jody Madeira, a law professor at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law, in an email.

These arrangements can also be called “domestic partnerships.” They may make both partners eligible to join each other’s health insurance plans, among other benefits.

Civil unions were more popular in the past, so states could extend legal protections to same-sex couples. Their popularity has waned since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, Madeira said.

What Does a Civil Union Involve?

A civil union between two people typically requires getting a license from the state in which they live, having a ceremony and receiving a certificate. Many same-sex couples entered a civil union before marriage was legal.

“It started off as being a means for equality, for same-gender individuals who wanted to have a lifetime commitment,” Fenton says. Now, she adds, “Most civil unions are defunct or are not really used” as marriage is now open to those individuals.

Heterosexual couples can consider civil unions as an alternative to marriage. This can allow them similar privileges that married partners have, such as the ability to inherit property from a partner and make health care decisions for a partner.

What Are Factors to Consider Before a Civil Union?

Civil unions aren’t used as much in recent years, Fenton says. But one reason to have a civil union could be to remove the religious connotations a wedding ceremony might have.

“I can’t think of any other reason,” she says. “It really was intended to be a stopgap.”

One 2023 study in the Journal of Family Issues found that some heterosexual couples considered marriage and weddings to be “patriarchal and a poor fit for them and their relationships.” Researchers reported that some couples found civil partnerships in England and Wales to be a better fit for equality.

As far as things to consider before seeking a civil union, “It’s the same stuff you should think about before you get married,” Fenton says. Think about whether you are ready for that level of commitment, comfortable following through with it and willing to face the consequences if it doesn’t work out.

The dissolution of a civil union is similar to the divorce process, involving the division of assets and debts, child custody and alimony, determined in a settlement or through court.

Sarah Goldberg
Sarah Goldberg

Sarah is a seasoned financial market expert with a decade of experience. She's known for her analytical skills, attention to detail, and ability to communicate complex financial concepts. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Finance, is a licensed financial advisor, and enjoys reading and traveling in her free time.

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