Civil unions and domestic partnerships are legal relationships between two people that can provide the same rights and responsibilities as married couples. They are granted by the state where a couple lives. All rights conveyed by the relationship are limited to what is designated by state law.
A 2015 Supreme Court decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, resulted in same-sex couples having the constitutional right to marry in all states. Since Obergefell, the popularity of civil unions and domestic partnerships has diminished, but people may choose them as an alternative to marriage for personal or social reasons.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) uses your relationship status—such as whether you're in a marriage, civil union, or domestic partnership—to determine the type and amount of your benefits in the following ways:
Social Security will treat couples in civil unions or domestic partnerships as being in a marital relationship for Social Security benefit purposes, for the states listed below. (For SSI purposes, the SSA will also treat couples who live together and "hold themselves out as married" as married for benefit purposes.)
After the Obergefell case, same-sex couples can marry in every state. As a result, many states converted existing civil unions into marriages, but some states maintain the distinction. States with civil unions provide the option to both same- and opposite-sex couples.
Five states—Connecticut, Delaware, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont—converted all civil unions performed in those states into marriages.
Domestic partnerships are similar to civil unions in the rights granted. Six states and the District of Columbia allow domestic partnerships. Hawaii provides for a similar relationship known as reciprocal beneficiaries.
Like civil unions, states that have domestic partnership laws provide the option for both same- and opposite-sex couples. The following jurisdictions maintain a separate legal status for domestic partnerships:
Your relationship status is an important factor that Social Security uses when determining your eligibility for benefits such as retirement, survivors, and disability. After Obergefell, all married same-sex couples have the same rights to benefits based on their marital status as opposite-sex couples do.
Social Security considers civil unions or domestic partnerships to be "non-marital legal relationships (NMLRs)." For people in an NMLR, the math can be a little bit more complicated, since those rights are state-based, while the SSA is a federal department.
An NMLR will be recognized the same as a marriage for benefit purposes if, under the laws of the state where your union or partnership is registered, the relationship grants inheritance rights. When these conditions are met, the date when you first entered into the NMLR will be considered your marriage date for the purpose of the marriage duration requirements that need to be met before collecting survivor's benefits.
If you (or your partner) no longer live in the state where you formalized your NMLR, or you're just not sure how your relationship affects your Social Security benefits, you should contact the agency at 800-772-1213. (If you're hard of hearing, you can use TTY at 800-325-0778). You can also speak to a representative in person using the Social Security field office locator tool here.
On November 29th, 2022, the Respect for Marriage Act was passed in the U.S. Senate and is anticipated to become law soon. Under the Respect for Marriage Act, states must recognize valid same-sex marriages from other states. The act will also guarantee federal benefits are granted to married same-sex couples.
As gay rights increasingly take center stage, the state and federal laws that dictate them will continue to change. You can see a map of same-sex marriage laws in the United States here. If you're unclear about the status of your same-sex relationship, make sure to review the laws of your state or contact a family law or LGBTQ lawyer.
Updated December 6, 2022