Civil Rights

Same Sex Couples Have More Options In More States


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.

Original Article

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:

Civil Unions

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

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

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.

DOMA Still Rules

Even if you live in a state where same-sex marriages, domestic partnerships or civil unions are allowed, you and your spouse still can't enjoy any federal rights and privileges enjoyed by heterosexual couples.

What Will the Future Bring?

No one can predict the future, of course, but it looks like a couple of things are inevitable. For one, more states will likely start giving same-sex relationships some legal protections. Same-sex marriages may become more common, with civil unions being the first step taken. In fact, in Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont switched from civil unions to same-sex marriages.

Also, it looks as though DOMA's days are numbered. Early in 2011, the US Attorney General announced the Justice Department will no longer uphold DOMA's bar against federal recognition of same-sex marriages.

No matter what the future holds, it's today that matters most to you and your partner. Check the laws in your state to see what types of same-sex relationships are legally recognized. Contact your state and local lawmakers and urge them to pass laws giving you and your spouse the same rights and privileges as heterosexual couples.

You and your spouse don't need a government to approve of your relationship in order share your lives together. But such approval sure will help you enjoy the full-breadth of rights and privileges that come with a committed relationship.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Should my partner and I have a pre-civil union agreement, like a prenuptial or premarital agreement?
  • Can a civil union be dissolved in a different state than where the ceremony was held?
  • Since same-sex relationships aren't legally recognized in my state, should I give my partner power of attorney over my health care and financial matters?
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