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Nothing simple about civil unions

There was much joy in Boulder County when 67 couples were issued civil union licenses May 1st as Colorado’s civil union law took effect.  But what does having a civil union actually mean? Many legal experts would say a civil union is not marriage, yet with state recognition there are rights and responsibilities that partners in a civil union now have.

Surprise, you may already be in a civil union.  Unbeknownst to you, Colorado may already recognize you as a civil union partner.  Did you get married in another state or country?   Are you a party to a civil union, domestic partnership or substantially similar relationship in another jurisdiction?  Then most likely you’re in a civil union in Colorado said Erica Johnson, an estate planning attorney with Ambler & Keenan in Denver.  The civil union legislation applies to couples regardless of the gender of the partners.

How do benefits change?  Starting with policies issued or renewed in 2014, the law allows a civil union partner the ability to cover their partner as a dependent with health insurance and life insurance.  You’ll be able to purchase life insurance and name your partner as a beneficiary.  Partners can also be beneficiaries under PERA and other pensions.  Federal programs and laws such as Social Security, income taxes, estate taxes and immigration are not affected.  Also health insurance benefits that are tax free to spouses of eligible workers are taxable income to a partner in a civil union.

What are other rights available to civil union partners?  The right to make decisions for a partner when it comes to medical treatment or finances in case of incapacity is enhanced.  A civil union partner can also inherit even in the absence of a will.

What about the children of a civil union?  If a civil union is in place at the time of conception, the benefits and responsibilities of the non-biological partner are the same as if the partners were spouses, according to Johnson.  Both partners would be on the child’s birth certificate, although this may not be respected in other states.  For most purposes, child support and custody apply to partners in a civil union as they do for spouses.      

What happens when a civil union is dissolved?  A partner in a civil union may have obligations to support their former partner similar to spousal maintenance.  There could be a division of assets as part of the dissolution of a civil union as well.   As stated before, child support and custody comes into play just as it does with spouses.  One emerging part of the law is what steps you can take to protect your assets in case of union dissolution.

What about the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)?    The Supreme Court will rule on DOMA in a few days and it could have tremendous implications for same-sex partners.  “Civil unions are not marriage,” said Johnson, and so the ruling may not alter the rights and responsibilities related to civil unions in Colorado.  But there could be plenty of changes for same-sex couples regarding income and estate taxes, federal benefits, and immigration rights.  We will have to wait to see its impact.

Civil unions, while welcomed by many as progress toward same-sex marriage, raise many legal and financial questions that will be affected by federal and state court rulings.  If you’re considering a civil union, my recommendation is that you see an estate planning attorney that specializes in this complex and quickly changing area of the law.  A lengthy but authoritative and timely presentation can be found at