What is the Difference Between a Civil Union and a Marriage?
Civil unions have been in the news recently because many same-sex couples feel they are unequal to marriages. There are many differences between civil unions and marriages in the United States. Currently, both opposite sex and same sex couples may get civil unions, although only opposite sex couples may opt for a marriage instead.
While marriages are recognized on the federal level and therefore must be honored by every state in the Union, civil unions are only recognized in the state that the union took place in. Since state laws vary regarding civil unions, a couple may have different rights in some states than in others if they join together via a civil union. Some states, such as California, recognize civil unions and grant some rights to people in civil unions similar to those granted to people who are married. Other states, such as North Carolina and Texas, have amendments to their state constitutions that explicitly state that civil unions are not valid in that state and will not be recognized.
This means that a couple that is joined together via a civil union may lose some rights when crossing state lines. For example, couples may or may not have the right to make medical decisions for one another or custody over each other's children depending on the state in which they created a civil union and the state in which they are currently in.
It also means that a couple that has joined together in a civil union may have a hard time formally and legally ending the relationship. While a married couple can divorce in any state, a couple that has been joined together in a civil union must go to a state that recognizes it in order to have the civil union dissolved. Usually, this requires living in the state for six months to a year in order to satisfy residency requirements.
All couples, regardless of the gender of each partner, may choose to join together in a civil union if a state offers this option. Marriage, however, is only accessible by opposite-sex couples in most states. As of the time of publication, a federal law called the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages even if a state allows it.
The main differences between civil unions and marriages come from the fact that marriages are recognized federally and civil unions are not. People who are interested in civil unions must find out whether civil unions are recognized in their state and how their state goes about joining people in civil unions.