People often are confused about the difference between a Civil Union and a Domestic Partnership, and what their rights are if their partner, to whom they are not married, leaves them or predeceases them. This blog is designed to explain what the differences are between these two types of unions and the repercussions of separations or death on said relationships.
What is a Civil Union?
Civil Unions were permitted in Illinois prior to the Supreme Court of the United States recognizing same-sex marriages. The Civil Union laws in Illinois made a civil union available to people of the same sex as well as people of the opposite sex. At the time that the civil union law was enacted, civil unions were not federally recognized, so people who would lose certain federal benefits in the event of a “remarriage” could instead obtain a civil union and wouldn’t have to worry about losing their federal benefits. In the event that someone is in a Civil Union that they want to terminate, it is treated the same as a divorce in Illinois and a Petition for Dissolution of Civil Union must be filed to start the process. The same rights afforded to a divorcing couple are afforded to couples dissolving a civil union, including division of joint property, debts, and the awarding of spousal support, for example.
When the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that same-sex marriages would be recognized, the large majority of the benefits of civil unions became obsolete. Statutes were put into effect which allowed civil unions in Illinois to be “converted” to marriages. These marriages, when dissolved, are dissolved just as any other marriages are dissolved in Illinois. It makes no difference that they originated as civil unions. Civil Unions, in our experience, are not widely used today in Illinois, as there generally isn’t a need for them any longer.
Civil Unions or Domestic Partnerships?
People often confuse Civil Unions and Domestic Partnerships. While some states have Domestic Partnership laws and a process for dissolving a Domestic Partnership, at this point in time, Illinois does not. Couples who reside together and are not married often are surprised to find out that their “domestic partnership” isn’t recognized by the state of Illinois for purposes of benefiting from their partner’s estate upon their death, or upon their breakup or separation. We do not handle “domestic partnership” dissolutions as there is no mechanism under Illinois law at this point in time to divide property amongst parties who live together but never married in Illinois.
Domestic partnership laws were primarily put into place to allow unmarried people who reside together to be able to be placed on one another’s health insurance benefits, but that is really it. Illinois does not afford any benefits to people who are in a “domestic partnership”. If parties want to ensure that their partner receives, for example, their 401(k) if they predecease them, the person who owns the 401(k) should do an estate plan which awards this property to their partner, because the state of Illinois does not provide any protections or mechanisms for this person to “inherit” from them, even if they lived together unmarried for the majority of their lives.