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Why Some Couples Choose Civil Unions Over Marriage

What Is a Civil Union?

In Illinois, a civil union is a legal relationship between two people that affords them the same legal rights as a marriage. Civil unions became officially recognized in 2011 with the passing of the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act. A civil union can be entered into by both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. However, while civil unions are legally recognized in Illinois, they are not federally recognized.

Before Illinois legalized same-sex marriage in 2014 (followed by the Supreme Court in 2015), civil unions and domestic partnerships were a way for same-sex couples to receive the same rights as married couples. Today, civil unions are less common as most couples opt for marriage over a civil union. However, there are some reasons why couples may choose to seek a civil union instead of a marriage.

What is a Free Union Relationship? 

A free union is a romantic union between two or more persons without legal or religious recognition or regulation.

A free union is made between two individuals, but each individual may have several unions of their own.

Dissolving a Civil Union

Much like a divorce, couples wishing to dissolve their civil union will have to go through the same processes of property divisionchild custody, and child support settlements. Additionally, just as recommended to couples seeking a divorce, if you are planning to dissolve your civil union, you should seek representation from an experienced attorney.

What About Common Law Marriages?

Illinois does not recognize common-law marriages. This means that couples who are living together but are unmarried have very limited legal rights. While cohabitation agreements can offer some level of protection, the best way to protect yourself legally is to either be married or enter into a civil union.

The Benefits of a Civil Union

A major benefit of a civil union is that it provides couples with the same state rights as a married couple in Illinois. Therefore, a couple who does not wish to marry for personal reasons can still receive the same legal protections as a married couple. These rights and protections are particularly important when a couple chooses to separate.

Another significant benefit is that you have access to important employment and healthcare benefits with a civil union. For example, with a civil union, you have access to a partner’s employer-provided health insurance. Similarly, with a civil union, you have the right to visitation privileges and make medical decisions for your partner if they are sick.

For many, marriage comes with social and religious obligations they may not wish to avoid, but they still want to demonstrate their commitment to their partner. For couples opposed to marriage, a civil union allows them this opportunity without the same baggage as a marriage.

Limitations of Civil Unions

The most significant limitation of civil unions is that they are not federally recognized. Because of this, couples in a civil union cannot receive the same federally based benefits as married couples. For example, those in a civil union cannot file joint federal income tax returns. Similarly, you are not guaranteed Social Security or Veteran’s benefits. Lastly, those in a civil union cannot file visa petitions for a non-citizen partner as a married couple can. Consequently, many couples are now opting to get married instead of entering a civil union.

If you are considering a civil union, but aren’t sure if it is the right choice for your situation, reach out to an experienced lawyer like ours at Merel Family Law, for guidance. Our attorneys are well-versed in civil union and marriage laws, and we are prepared to help you.


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