A Look at the Legal Differences Between Marriages and Civil Unions

WASHINGTON – MARCH 16: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) listens during a news conference on gay marriage on Capitol Hill on March 16, 2011 in Washington, DC. Feinstein and sixteen other Democrats introduced a bill to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

There has been much talk in the news in recent months regarding the differences between “marriage” and “civil unions,” particularly in light of Gov. Chris Christie’s veto last month of a bill that would have made New Jersey the eighth state in the nation to recognize same-sex marriages. Those opposing that bill claim that civil unions grant gay and lesbian couples the same rights as marriage; proponents of the bill disagree. (1) If, after reading the following, you need a Hunterdon County lawyer to assist you with your rights under marriage or civil union laws, contact the family law attorneys at The Rotolo Law Firm in Lebanon, N.J.

New Jersey’s Civil Union Act was adopted in 2006 following the Supreme Court’s decision in Lewis v. Harris, in which the court ruled that New Jersey did not have to recognize same-sex marriages but had to grant same-sex couples the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts. A committee appointed to watch the progress of the Act has found that the Act does not quite live up to its purpose. As a result, a suit has been filed alleging that New Jersey violates the Constitutional rights of gay and lesbian couples by denying them equal protection of law. (1)

Initially the suit was dismissed by Mercer County Assignment Judge Linda Feinberg, but last month she reconsidered her ruling allowing the suit to proceed. Plaintiffs are hoping to prove at trial that the Civil Union Act has failed to provide same-sex couples with rights and responsibilities equal to those of heterosexual couples. (1)

Over 1,100 rights and responsibilities are bestowed on married couples in the U.S., according to the federal government’s General Accounting Office. These rights include Social Security and veteran’s benefits; pensions and retirement savings; health issues, such as insurance, Medicaid, hospital visitation and family leave rights; estate taxes; and immigration issues. (2)

One major difference between marriage and civil unions concerns federal benefits. DOMA, The Defense of Marriage Act, was signed into law by President Clinton (1996), and it defines marriage as a union between a woman and a man. As such, all federal rights pertaining to married couples are granted only to couples of the opposite sex. States that recognize same-sex relationships can only grant those couples state benefits, including co-parenting privileges, access to family health care, tax benefits and protections offered under the state’s separation or divorce laws. (3)

Another difference is that marriages are recognized in all states, but civil unions are not. A couple who marries in New Jersey would still be considered married if they moved to another state but a couple who enters into a civil union could find themselves with no legal standing if they move to a state where such relationships are not recognized. Even some states where civil unions are legal won’t recognize such unions performed elsewhere. New Jersey happens to be one state that recognizes all civil unions even if they were performed in another state. (3)

Whether same-sex marriages will ever be legal in New Jersey is yet to be seen. Republican leaders want voters to decide but Democratic leaders are opposed to this. State lawmakers have until January 2014 to override the Governor’s veto. Meanwhile proponents of same-sex marriages continue to fight in both the legislature and the courtroom. In the meantime, if you or someone you know has questions regarding your rights under marriage or civil union laws contact The Rotolo Law Firm located in Lebanon, N.J., which is in close proximity to Clinton and Flemington.

(1) http://www.law.com/jsp/nj/PubArticleNJ.jsp?id=1202543062276&slreturn=1
(2) http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0922609.html

(3) http://www.factcheck.org/what_is_a_civil_union.html

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