Civil unions and domestic partnerships are legal relationships between two people that generally provide the same rights and responsibilities as married couples. They are granted by the state in which the couple lives, and any rights conveyed by the relationship are limited to what is expressed by state law. However, neither civil unions nor domestic partnerships are marriages. This means that any federal benefits extended to people in these relationships are not equal to those provided to married couples. But as states continue to approve same-sex marriage, they often provide that existing civil unions or domestic partnerships will convert automatically to marriages.
Relatively few states, however, allow for civil unions or domestic partnerships for same-sex couples. Here is a list.
Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, and New Jersey allow civil unions between members of the same sex, but the federal government does not consider these unions to be equivalent to marriage. Partners in a civil union in these states are not entitled to Social Security benefits, veterans benefits, or military spousal benefits. Here are the details.
Colorado has permitted same-sex couples to enter into civil unions since May 1, 2013. You can learn more about the Colorado civil union law here. Colorado does not yet recognize same-sex marriage.
Hawaii has permitted same-sex civil unions since January 1, 2012. You can learn more about Hawaii's civil union law here. Hawaii does not yet allow or recognize same-sex marriage, but Hawaii will recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states as civil unions.
Illinois has permitted same-sex civil unions since June 1, 2011. Learn about Illinois' civil union law here. Illinois does not yet allow or recognize same-sex marriage.
New Jersey has permitted same-sex couples to enter into civil unions since February 19, 2007. A valid same-sex marriage entered into in another state will be viewed as a civil union in New Jersey. You can learn more about the New Jersey civil union law here. (In addition, New Jersey allows same-sex marriage as of October 2013.)
Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island, and Vermont used to allow the establishment of civil unions, but now allow same-sex marriage instead. See below for information about how civil unions in these states may be converted to marriages.
The following states allow for domestic partnerships. Domestic partners are not eligible for Social Security or other federal benefits based on marriage.
Although same-sex marriages are now legal in California, same-sex domestic partnerships continue to be available. Same-sex domestic-partnerships do not convert automatically to a marriage, as in some other states. You can read more about California's domestic partners law here.
Domestic partnerships continue to be available to same-sex couples in D.C., even though same-sex marriage is legal as well. If you are in a valid domestic partnership (or marriage) from another jurisdiction, you do not need to register your relationship in D.C. You can read more about D.C. same-sex marriage and domestic partnerships here.
Domestic partnerships continue to be an option for same-sex couples in Maine even though same-sex marriage has been legalized. Maine domestic partnerships do not convert automatically to marriages. You can read more about Maine domestic partnership laws here.
Before same-sex marriage became legal in Minnesota on August 1, 2013, same-sex couples were limited to municipal domestic partnerships, which were available in select cities. Municipal domestic partnerships provide limited employer benefits for same-sex partners, do not convert to marriages, and do not provide any entitlement to federal spousal benefits, including Social Security. You can read more about Minnesota same-sex marriage and domestic partnerships laws here.
Nevada has allowed same-sex domestic partnerships since October 1, 2009, but Nevada does not yet recognize same-sex marriage. You can learn more about the law Nevada domestic partnership law here.
Oregon has allowed same-sex domestic partnerships since February 1, 2008. You can learn more about Oregon's domestic partnership laws here. Oregon does not yet recognize same-sex marriage.
Domestic partnerships for same-sex couples have been legal in Wisconsin since August 3, 2009. You can learn more about same-sex domestic partnerships in Wisconsin here.
Same-sex domestic partnerships are legal in Washington, but as of June 30, 2014, they will be available only to couples where at least one member is at least 62 years of age. You can read more about Washington law here. (See below for when same-sex partnerships will convert to marriages.)
Before the Supreme Court overturned Part 2 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), same-sex spouses were not entitled to federal spousal benefits, even if the couple's marriage was valid in the state where they lived. This was because the federal government defined marriage as between one man and one woman. However, the federal government must now extend federal benefits, including Social Security spousal benefits, to same-sex married couples, as long as the marital relationship is valid in the state where the couple lives.
This is not true for same-sex (or heterosexual) couples in civil unions or domestic partnerships, even if the relationship is valid in the state where the couple lives and the state gives the same benefits to those unions and partnerships as it does to marriage. At this point in time, Social Security benefits are only extended to couples who have entered into a valid marriage and who live in a state where that marriage is recognized.
In some states, same-sex partners in civil unions have had, or will soon automatically have, their unions converted to marriages, which will make them automatically eligible for federal benefits. Similarly, as to domestic partnerships, in at least one state that has approved same-sex marriage, most same-sex domestic partnerships will automatically convert to marriages.
Several states that initially permitted only civil unions or domestic partnerships for same-sex couples passed laws enabling same-sex couples to get married. This is important for same-sex couples because when a civil union or domestic partnership is converted to a marriage, the spouses become eligible for federal spousal benefits such as Social Security. However, if a couple remains in a civil union or domestic partnership, they will still not be eligible for Social Security spousal benefits until they are married.
Connecticut passed same-sex marriage legislation in 2008, and all Connecticut civil unions automatically converted to marriages on October 1, 2010. However, if you were in a civil union on October 1, 2010 that was pending a dissolution, your civil union did not convert to a marriage. You can read more about the law Connecticut conversion law here.
Same-sex marriage became legal in Delaware on July 1, 2013, and civil unions are no longer available. Civil unions entered into in Delaware prior July 1, 2013, will automatically convert to marriages on July 1, 2014. If you want to convert your civil union prior to that date, you can apply for a marriage license in the county where your civil union was authorized. You can read the Delaware law here.
Same-sex marriage has been legal in New Hampshire since 2010 and all New Hampshire civil unions automatically converted to marriages on January 1, 2011.
Same-sex marriage was declared legal in New Jersey in October 2013. While same-sex civil unions are currently still allowed, it is expected that, before January 2014, the New Jersey legislature will override the governor's veto on a bill that would automatically convert same-sex civil unions to same-sex marriages.
As of August 1, 2013, same-sex couples that had entered into a civil union in Rhode Island have the option of converting their relationship to a marriage. Civil unions that are not converted to marriage will remain valid civil unions, but if you don't convert your civil union to a marriage, you will remain ineligible for federal spousal benefits, including Social Security. You can read the new law here.
Vermont passed same-sex marriage legislation and made civil unions unavailable in 2009. Vermont civil unions that were not converted to marriages remain valid. However, if you do not convert your civil union to a marriage, you will remain ineligible for federal spousal benefits, including Social Security. You can read more about same-sex marriage and civil unions in Vermont here.
Only Washington is requiring most same-sex domestic partnerships to convert to marriages, once same-sex marriage is legalized in the state in 2014. Here are the details.
As of June 30, 2014, same-sex marriage will be legal and all domestic partnerships will convert to marriages, except those where at least one member of the relationship is at least 62 years old. At that point, these same-sex spouses will be eligible for federal spousal benefits such as Social Security. Couples who remain in domestic partnership (such as those with at least one partner over 62 who choose not to convert their relationship to a marriage) will not be eligible for Social Security spousal benefits.
As gay rights increasingly take center stage, the state and federal laws that dictate them will continue to change. If you are unclear about the current status of your same-sex relationship, make sure to review the laws of your state or contact a family law or LGBTQ lawyer.