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Civil Union vs. Marriage: What’s the Difference?

4 min read
Jan 30, 2023

Partners who want to take their relationship to the next level generally have two options: marriage or a civil union. Both provide legal protections and can signify a couple's commitment to one another, but there are also some key distinctions between the two.

If you and your partner aren’t sure which may be right for you, read on to learn about the similarities and differences between civil unions and marriages so you can make an informed decision.

What is a civil union?

A civil union (also known as a civil partnership) is a legal arrangement between two people that provides state-level legal protections. Though they have many of the same legal protections as a marriage, civil unions are recognized only by individual states rather than by federal law, unlike with a marriage. The benefits and rights granted by civil unions vary from state to state, and not all states recognize civil unions.1

What are the reasons couples enter a civil union?

Before Obergefell v. Hodges — the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that made same-sex marriage legal across the United States2 — the only option for same-sex couples who wanted their relationship to be protected under state law were civil unions or domestic partnerships.

Today, same-sex couples have the same rights to marry as heterosexual couples. Though many people still join civil unions for a variety of reasons. Some common reasons partners may opt for or remain in a civil union include:

  • They don’t want to get married, but still want legal protections.
  • They don’t want to be recognized federally as married due to tax purposes or other reasons.
  • They don’t feel comfortable with the social conventions of marriage or the religious/traditional connotations surrounding marriage.

What are the similarities between a civil union and a marriage?

The process for getting a civil union can be similar to that for getting married.3 Civil union partners will need to apply for a certificate of civil union and meet certain requirements, such as paying a fee and being of a certain age. And while the terminology to terminate a civil union is different from that for a marriage — divorce versus dissolution — the process is fundamentally the same.4 An application for dissolution is filed in court, and partners will have to agree on how to divide assets and other shared obligations.

In addition to the proceedings, civil unions also share many of the same rights, benefits, and legal protections as marriages.5 Some of the most common protections both types of unions have include:

  • Inheritance rights: If one partner passes away, the other can inherit their assets — unless specified otherwise in their will.
  • Employment benefits: Partners have rights to their spouses’ employment benefits, like health insurance.
  • Bereavement rights: Partners have rights to bereavement leave if their partner passes away.
  • Parental rights: Partners have guardianship rights and the right to share custody of their children.
  • Property and estate planning rights: Couples share joint ownership of property and can plan their estates together.
  • Joint tax filing: Partners can file state taxes jointly 
  • Spousal privilege: Couples can’t be forced to testify against one another in court.
  • Financial support: Partners may have the right to seek financial support or alimony if the union dissolves.

What are the differences between a civil union and a marriage?

As mentioned earlier, the main difference between a civil union and a marriage is that civil unions aren’t recognized by the federal government. Since civil unions are only recognized at the state level, they don’t offer certain federal protections and benefits.

For example, the Social Security Administration (SSA) guarantees benefits to married couples, but not necessarily to partners in a civil union. And while the surviving spouse of a veteran may be eligible for health coverage and other federal assistance, this isn’t always the case for spouses in a civil union. Other federal rights that differ for civil unions include not being able to file jointly on federal taxes or file visa petitions for a spouse or fiancé(e) who isn't a citizen.6

Another major difference between civil unions and marriages is how they’re recognized across states. Marriages are recognized in every state — if you get married in California, it will be recognized in Florida — but civil unions are not. If you and your partner get a civil union certificate in one state and then move to another state, your union might not be recognized as a legal partnership.

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1 “Civil Unions and Domestic Partnership Statues," National Conference of State Legislatures. Accessed 12/20/2023

2 Obergefell v. Hodges." Oyez, 2023

3Is There Any Reason To Get a Civil Union?” Illinois Legal Aid Online, 2020

4 Dissolution of a Civil Union” The Law Office of Jeanne M. Wilson & Associates, 2022

5Civil Union” Britannica

6Why Some Couples Choose Civil Unions Over Marriage” The Law Offices of Jonathan Merel, 2021