It went down to the wire but New York passed a gay marriage law. This makes New York the sixth state to legalize same-sex marriage. It remains to be seen if this is the tipping point for gay rights nationwide.
Almost immediately afterward, seven gay couples announced they would sue the state of New Jersey for full recognition of marital rights. New Jersey has a civil unions law for same-sex unions. But the couples argue the law has failed to confer the same rights as traditional marriage gives to married couples. This promises to be a hot summer for the gay-marriage issue.
There's more to marriage than spending your life with someone you love. With marriage comes many legal rights and obligations for you and your spouse. Not to minimize the love factor, but those legal rights and protections are a driving force in the debate over how same-sex relationships are viewed in the eyes of the law.
About half the states offer same-sex couples some way to formalize their relationships, such as civil unions, but full marital rights are gaining momentum, too. Now that New York state has made gay marriage legal, more states could follow.
Spousal Rights and Same-Sex Couples
Heterosexual or straight couples enjoy many state and local legal rights and privileges. However, same-sex couples don't enjoy those rights and privileges, such as the:
- Right to make emergency medical decisions for your partner
- Ability to file joint state and local tax returns
- Right to share a room in a nursing home
- Ability to visit your spouse who's in intensive care or other area of a hospital with restricted access
- Automatic, legal entitlement to your spouse's property and assets when your spouse dies
These are just a few examples. There are hundreds more.
You don't get certain federal rights and privileges, either. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) bars federal agencies from recognizing same-sex relationships, so you and your spouse can't:
A civil union is as close as you can get to marriage without actually being legally married. That's because they give you and spouse all of the same legal protections given to straight couples.
The movement toward allowing these types of relationships seems to be gaining steam. They're available in New Jersey and, as of June 1, 2011, in Illinois, too. Beginning in 2012, you can take advantage of a civil union in Delaware and Hawaii.
Again, the laws in these states vary a bit, but Illinois' law is a good example of what you'll find in a typical law:
- You both have to be at least 18 years old
- You both must dissolve any prior marriage or civil union before entering into a new civil union
- Civil unions between ancestors and descendants, siblings (whether by blood or adoption), first cousins and aunts/uncles and nephews/nieces are prohibited
- You have to pay a fee for license. You get one from the same local court office where you'd buy a marriage license, and it costs the same, too
- You and your spouse have to wait at least one day before you hold the ceremony
- You need to go to court for a dissolution if your civil union fails
Options for Same-Sex Partners
Depending on where you and your spouse live, you may have a way to formalize your relationship and enjoy all or some of the rights and privileges of a straight couple.
Same-sex marriages are optimal. They give same-sex partners the same legal protections as heterosexual couples.
However, only a handful of states allow them, such as New York, Massachusetts and Vermont. And even fewer states recognize same-sex marriages from other states.
Domestic partnerships are another option. They're available in California, Maine and a few other states.
Spousal rights differ from state to state, too. Some states give you and your spouse all of the rights enjoyed by straight couples. Other states give you and your spouse only some of those rights.
Next: DOMA Still Rules