Civil Unions & Domestic Partnership Statutes
Updated February 26, 2014
Several states have expanded the legal rights available to spouses in same-sex relationships through civil unions and domestic partnerships.
- Six states adopted civil unions available to both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. Civil unions provide legal recognition to the couples’ relationship and provides legal rights to the partners similar to those accorded to spouses in marriages. (Delaware and Rhode Island have now replaced their civil union provisions with same-sex marriage that will take effect on July 1 and Aug. 1, 2013, respectively.)
- Two states have adopted broad domestic partnerships that grant nearly all state-level spousal rights to unmarried couples.
- Three states and D.C. provide limited domestic partnerships that provide some state-level spousal rights to unmarried couples, including same-sex couples.
Note: These rights are broadly available in the state and not limited to a particular group. For example, in some states certain benefits are provided to domestic partners who are state employees. Those states are not included in this summary.
State Laws: Civil Unions, Domestic Partnerships and Same-Sex Marriage
| Colorado | Delaware | Hawaii | Illinois | New Jersey | Rhode Island |
The Colorado Legislature passed a bill to establish civil unions for same-sex couples in 2013. Governor John Hickenlooper signed SB 11 into law on March 21, 2013, and goes into effect on May 1, 2013. The bill provides for the same rights, benefits and protections and responsibilities as married persons under Colorado law. Religious officials are not required to certify a civil union. The bill also recognizes civil unions from other jurisdictions.
Civil unions were approved by the Delaware legislature in April 2011 and signed by Governor Markell on May 11, 2011. The law (SB 30) recognizes the legal relationship of civil union and provides for the same rights, benefits, protections and responsibilities as married persons under Delaware law. It does not require any religious institution to perform solemnizations of civil unions. The law took effect Jan. 1, 2012. On May 7, 2013, the Delaware legislature adopted a same-sex marriage law that will convert civil unions to marriages. The law takes effect on July 1, 2013.
Civil unions were approved by the Hawaii Legislature in February 2011, and signed into law by Governor Neil Abercrombie on February 23, 2011. Senate Bill 232, which will be known as Act 1, makes same-sex and opposite-sex couples eligible for civil union recognition beginning Jan. 1, 2012. The law grants same-sex couples the same rights as married couples.
In 1998, Hawaii voters approved a constitutional amendment giving legislators the authority to define marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman. Civil unions are a legal partnership, open to both same-sex and heterosexual couples, and no religious institution or leader would be required to perform or recognize them. Civil unions, domestic partnerships and same-sex marriages performed in other states would be recognized as civil unions in Hawaii.
The Illinois General Assembly approved SB 1716 (Public Act 96-1513) in December 2010, and Governor Pat Quinn signed it into law on January 31, 2011. The bill, referred to as the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act, allows same-sex and opposite-sex couples to enter into civil unions, giving them some of the same benefits available to married couples, including the right to visit a sick partner in the hospital, disposition of a deceased loved one's remains and the right to make decisions about a loved one's medical care.
New Jersey (allows both Civil Unions and Domestic Partnerships)
Same-sex couples in New Jersey will be able to enter into civil unions beginning in February 2007. Civil unions offer same-sex couples state-level spousal rights and responsibilities, but none of the federal protections (such as Social Security survivor benefits), and there is no guarantee that the unions will be recognized by other states or the federal government. The domestic partnership law, Chapter 103, that was passed in 2004 will be available only to opposite-sex couples over the age of 62.
The New Jersey Assembly passed a same sex marriage bill in December, 2009. The measure failed in the Senate in early 2010.
Rhode Island General Assembly passed legislation allowing civil unions in June 2011. The bill, H6103, was signed into law by Governor Chafee and took effect July 1, 2011. Those who enter into a civil union are offered the same benefits as provided to married couples. On May 2, 2013, the Rhode Island legislature adopted a same-sex marriage law that will convert civil unions to marriages. The law takes effect on Aug. 1, 2013.
The following states had civil unions that were converted to marriages:
| Vermont | New Hampshire | Connecticut |
(Note: Vermont passed same sex marriage in May 2009. As of September 1, 2009, civil unions are no longer available. However, civil unions entered into prior to September 1, 2009 will remain valid.)
Among the rights and responsibilities available to Vermont residents who enter into a civil union are:
More on Marriage Equality Act in Vermont
- Responsibility for supporting each other “to the same degree and in the same manner as prescribed under law for married persons”;
- State tax benefits;
- Improved access to family health insurance policies and joint credit;
- The right to leave work to care for an ill partner;
- Co-parenting privileges and responsibilities for any child who becomes the child of one or both partners during the civil union;
- Automatic preference for the guardianship of, and medical decision making for, a partner should he or she become incapacitated;
- Inheritance rights (even without a will); and
- Equal access to state separation, divorce, child custody, child support and property division laws if the civil union ends.
(Note: The New Hampshire legislature passed same sex marriage legislation, HB 0436, in May 2009 which will go into effect on January 1, 2010. All civil unions will be merged into marriage no later than January, 2011, unless otherwise annulled or dissolved. New Hampshire will still recognize civil unions from other states.)
In 2007 the Legislature passed a bill that created the legal status of civil unions. Parties to a civil union are entitled to all of the state-level spousal rights and responsibilities. Governor Lynch signed the bill into law (Chapter 457-A: Civil Unions), and it became effective January 1, 2008.
(Note: Connecticut now allows same sex marriage. On October 1, 2010, civil unions will cease to be provided and existing civil unions will be automatically converted to marriages.)
Same-sex couples in Connecticut are able to enter into civil unions thanks to a law that went into effect October 1, 2005. Civil unions offer same-sex couples some of the benefits of marriage under state law, but none of the federal protections (such as Social Security survivor benefits), and there is no guarantee that the unions will be recognized by other states or the federal government.
The civil unions bill, SB 963, was approved by the Connecticut Legislature in April 2005 and signed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell. Before passing it, however, the state House of Representatives attached an amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Connecticut was the first state to establish civil unions voluntarily, without having been ordered to do so by a court.
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| California | Oregon | Washington | Maine | Hawaii | District of Columbia | Nevada | Wisconsin |
California has passed four pieces of legislation that provide rights and responsibilities to registered domestic partners (same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples over the age of 62 are eligible to register). Assembly Bill 26 passed in 1999 established the statewide domestic partner registry and conferred a handful of rights which included hospital visitation and the right of state and local employers the ability to offer health care coverage to the domestic partners of their employees. Assembly Bill 25 was passed in 2001 and extended the rights of domestic partners to include the right to make medical decisions, the right to inherit when partner dies without a will, the right to use state step-parent adoption procedures, the right to use sick leave to care for a domestic partner and the right to be appointed as administrator of estate. In 2003 Assembly Bill 205 was passed, basically extending all of the state-level rights and responsibilities of marriage to domestic partners. The rights and responsibilities associated with Assembly Bill 205 went into effect on January 1, 2005. In 2011, Senate Bill 651 was passed and became effective January 1, 2012. Senate Bill 651 eliminated the requirement that domestic partners have a common residence and permits a person who is under 18 years of age who otherwise meets the requirements for establishing a domestic partnership to do so upon obtaining a court order and consent from the parent or guardian. The bill also requires the Secretary of State to establish a process by which 2 persons could enter into a confidential domestic partnership.
As of February 1, 2008, same-sex couples in Oregon are able to enter into domestic partnerships that provide the same rights, benefits, and responsibilities as marriage under state law, the Oregon Family Fairness Act, Public Law Number 99, Oregon HB 2007 (2007). Domestic partnerships offer same-sex couples the benefits of marriage under state law, but none of the federal protections (such as Social Security survivor benefits), and there is no guarantee that the partnerships will be recognized by other states or the federal government. (The law was set to take effect January 1, 2008, but was delayed a month due to a pending injunction, which was lifted.)
With a 2009 expansion of the law (Chapter 26.60 RCW) originally passed in 2007, registered domestic partners were afforded nearly all statewide spousal rights. However, this expansion was challenged by a ballot measure to repeal the additional benefits, Referendum 71, which passed in November, 2009. Washington's domestic partner law remains unchanged and provides a full scope of domestic partner benefits. Referendum 74 was passed in the November 2012 general election legalizing same-sex marriage. Referendum 74 limits domestic partnerships in Washington to couples in which at least one of the persons is sixty-two years of age or older. This new provision becomes effective June 30, 2014. Any state registered same-sex domestic partnership where neither party is sixty-two years of age or older, is automatically converted into a marriage as of June 30, 2014, unless dissolved or converted to marriage prior to that date.
The Maine Legislature passed LD 1579, a domestic partner registry bill, in April 2004. The law went into effect on July 30, 2004. The law (Chapter 701, Title 22, Section 2710) gives registered domestic partners limited rights, including:
- Inheritance without a will
- Making funeral and burial arrangements
- Entitlement to be named a guardian or conservator if partner becomes incapacitated or to be named a representative to administer a deceased partner’s estate
- Entitlement to make organ and tissue donation
- Explicit protection in the state’s domestic violence laws
In 1997 the Hawaii Legislature passed a law that allows same-sex couples to enter into a reciprocal beneficiary relationship. Couples secure the following benefits from a reciprocal beneficiary relationship: inheritance without a will, ability to sue for the wrongful death of their reciprocal beneficiary, hospital visitation and health care decisions, consent to postmortem exams, loan eligibility, property rights (including joint tenancy), tort liability and protection under Hawaii domestic violence laws.
The Hawaii Reciprocal Beneficiaries law was enacted July 8, 1997. The law provides limited state rights to same-sex couples, relatives and friends. The law "represents a commitment to provide substantially similar government rights to those couples who are barred by law from marriage." Among the benefits extended to non-married reciprocal beneficiaries under the law are: property rights, including joint tenancy; the right to visit your partner in a hospital and make health care decisions for her or him; ability to inherit property without a will; and protection under Hawaii's domestic violence laws. After the creation of civil unions in 2011, the legislature specified if two reciprocal beneficiaries enter into a civil union with each other, the rights, benefits, protections, or responsibilities created by the reciprocal beneficiary relationship shall be continuous through the civil union and deemed to have accrued as of the first date these rights existed under the reciprocal beneficiary relationship. (Hawaii’s law establishing reciprocal beneficiaries is not limited to same-sex couples and can be used to contractually bind two parties, even those who may be already related, such as a brother and sister.)
District of Columbia
(Note: In 2009, the DC Council passed a law recognizing same sex marriages performed in other states. At the end of 2009, the DC Council passed a resolution to allow same sex marriage in the District of Columbia. )
In 1992 the District of Columbia City Council passed a law that allows unmarried couples to register as domestic partners. Since that time, several rights have been added, including hospital visitation, the right to make medical decisions, the right to control the remains of a deceased partner, the right to take sick leave to take care of a partner and the right to sue for the wrongful death of a partner. Effective March 3, 2010, couples in a domestic partnership prior to the legalization of same-sex marriage are able to apply for a marriage license without an additional fee.
(DC’s domestic partner registry was created in law in 1992, but Congress prohibited DC from expending any public money on the registry. This ban was lifted in 2002.)
Citations: D.C. Code §1-307.68; §1-612.31, 32(b); §3-413; §16-1001; §5-113.31, 33; §21-2210; §32-501, 701, 704, 705(a), 705(b), 705(c), 705(d), 706; §42-1102, 3404.02(b)(c), 3651.05(c)(3); §47-858.03; §47-902; §50-1501.02(e)(4) and various other sections of the D.C. Code.
In June, 2009, the Nevada Assembly overrode the Governor's veto establishing a statewide registry for domestic partners with Senate Bill No. 283. The benefits are substantially comparable to the rights and responsibilities afforded in traditional marriage, though employers are not mandated to provide health care coverage for domestic partners. Domestic partnerships are open to both opposite sex and same-sex couples.
In June, 2009, the Wisconsin legislature passed a law (2009 Wisconsin Act 28, Assembly Bill 75, Section 774) establishing a statewide domestic partnership registry. Registered domestic partners in Wisconsin are now afforded some of the spousal benefits of marriage, including: inheritance and survivor protections, family and medical leave, medical/hospital visitation rights and exemption from the real estate transfer fee.
Wisconsin has a constitutional amendment defining marriage between one man and one woman. The amendment includes a clause that bans any legal status that is identical or substantially similar to marriage. Wisconsin is the first state with this type of constitutional amendment to also establish a domestic partner registry. The registry was challenged in court. In December 2012 the Wisconsin Fourth District Court of Appeals ruled the registry was constitutional and did not violate the intent of the marriage amendment.
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