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Differences Between Marriages and Civil Unions

Differences Between Marriages and Civil Unions

The main difference between marriages and civil unions is their legal and cultural acceptability. This Buzzle article gives the comparison of civil unions vs. marriages, and includes all important aspects like their definition and the rights available to both.
Akshay Chavan
The US Federal government grants 1,138 rights to married couples, which are not available to partners of a civil union.
Marriage is an age-old phenomenon, endorsed by society and religion alike, for the propagation of the human race. While traditionally it involved a man and a woman, the concept of a marriage has changed drastically. Some US states and nations across the world have boldly legalized gay marriages. This has not been an overnight change, but rather, is the result of years of campaigns by human rights and LGBT groups.

Such same-sex unions are still forbidden in most parts of the world and even in the developed nations, while most religions frown upon this practice. This is mostly due to the religious connotation of a marriage, which strictly caters to a heterosexual couple. It is due to this opposition of religious groups that governments of a few American States as well as other nations like England, New Zealand, and Australia have legalized an arrangement called the 'Civil Union'.

In simple words, a civil union is a legal provision that allows a couple to live together and enjoy rights similar to married couples, without the religious connotations of marriage. While gay couples are most likely to enter such a union, even heterosexual couples can opt for it. In fact, some states regard only same-sex unions as civil unions. Nevertheless, there is always confusion regarding the various rights and responsibilities offered by the state and federal governments to both these relationships. Here's a comparison of marriages vs. civil unions to put all such confusions to rest.

Civil Union Vs. Marriage


What is a Marriage?
A marriage, also called a civil marriage, is a legally, socially, and ritually recognized union between two individuals, either of the opposite sex or of the same sex, in some states and countries. A marriage, traditionally, is considered a relationship in which a man and a woman can live together and can start a family. This relationship confers on each spouse many rights and responsibilities, both, by the government as well as society, making marriages the most desirable relationship.

What is a Civil Union?
A civil union is a non-religious, legal arrangement created by governments with the intention to provide both, heterosexual and same-sex couples with rights similar to those conferred by marriages. This relationship has lesser rights than those granted by marriages, and is recognized only within the boundaries of the states where it was created.

Legal Requirements

▶ Most states require individuals to be at least 18 years of age
▶ A blood test to determine that the person does not carry infectious diseases
▶ A marriage license is obtained between 1 to 6 days before the ceremony
▶ The marriage must be authorized by a civic official in the presence of a witness

Civil Union
▶ The requirements differ from state to state
▶ Individuals must be at least 18 years old
▶ They should not be closely related by any family ties
▶ They should not be a part of any other civil union, and should not be married


Marriages can be solemnized, either by a civil ceremony without rituals, or they can involve a wedding ceremony. In both cases, the validity of the relationship depends on procuring a marriage license that is issued by a church or some other state authority.

Civil Union
Civil unions are formed in a civil ceremony only, in which the couple has to obtain a civil union license from authorities, though the exact procedure varies from state to state. This relationship can also involve a religious ceremony if the couple wishes for it and if any religious body approves of it, though it will only be recognized as a civil union and not as a marriage.


Marriages can be dissolved using different methods, such as annulment, divorce, or a legal separation. The method to be chosen depends on the reason for ending the marriage. If it can be proven that a marriage never existed because of a reason like mental illness of a spouse, then it can be annulled. Divorce is ending a legal marriage, when the couple proves that grounds for ending the marriage exist, and it involves a legal division of the couple's assets, debts, and conditions for child support.

Civil Union
The laws for dissolving a civil union may differ from state to state, and it can only be done in states which recognize civil unions. Like in marriages, the spouses have to show suitable grounds for ending the civil union, such as adultery, imprisonment, separation, etc. However, there is some confusion about the laws related to dissolution of civil unions in some states, which may be complex. Some states, just like marriages, allow divorce proceedings for civil unions with alimony and negotiations for child visitation rights included.

Rights Granted by the Government

  • Survivor benefits through social security
  • Sick-care leave by the employer to care for an ill partner, according to the Family Medical Leave Act
  • Unlimited visiting rights to a sick spouse in hospital
  • Family insurance provided by the employer
  • Taking a medical decision on behalf of a sick partner
  • Tax benefits for spouses, as they can file joint tax returns under the IRS
  • On death of one spouse, the other partner inherits all assets without taxation
  • Citizenship benefits to a non-US citizen married to a citizen
  • Legal provision for divorce, which ensures a fair dissolution of the marriage and distribution of assets
Civil Union
  • Right to receive financial support from a partner
  • Right to own property jointly, which is inherited by the survivor after death, even without a will
  • Right to take medical decisions of one's partner
  • Right to insure a partner
  • Ability to make one's partner a beneficiary to retirement
  • The above laws are only valid in the state in which the civil union was formalized
Disadvantages of Civil Unions as Compared to Marriages
  • Whatever rights are available to civil unions are valid only within state boundaries.
  • The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) passed by the US Federal Government gives the state governments the freedom to accept or reject same-sex marriages. Exploiting this law, almost all states passed laws that prohibited the recognition of same-sex marriages that were formalized in other states. Such states are under no compulsion to recognize same-sex civil unions, since they don't even recognize same-sex marriages.
  • Only three states recognize civil unions; Hawaii, Colorado, and Illinois.
  • Federal rights such as social security, sick leave, immigration, and tax benefits are not applicable to civil unions. On the other hand, more than 1,138 of such federal benefits can be availed by married couples.
  • Even if state governments try to provide more rights and benefits to civil unions, such proposals may be stalled by joint federal or state programs.
  • The lack of federal benefits forces partners in a civil union to take legal measures to protect their family's future, a step which can be expensive and can be contested in court.
  • Culturally, civil unions are still considered a taboo in some places, whereas marriages are universally acceptable. Partners of civil unions may also be barred from taking part in religious ceremonies. The word 'marriage' itself gives a sense of security to a family, which is often found lacking in civil unions.
  • The mere fact that there are different requirements and procedures for formalizing a civil union, as compared to marriages, has been labeled as discrimination against civil unions.
  • Partners of a civil union cannot even seek a divorce in most states, as they don't even acknowledge the existence of civil unions.
  • Since same-sex marriages are not allowed in most US states, such couples have no choice but to opt for a civil union when they would prefer getting married.
  • While filling forms, the most common choice is between 'married' or 'single'. Civil unions do not fall into either category, which leads most partners to misrepresent themselves in forms, which is a punishable offense.
While there are several problems faced by civil unions, there is a silver lining too. Recently, the US Supreme Court has called the DOMA law unconstitutional. Also, one after another, 9 states have legalized same-sex marriages, making civil unions unnecessary. Moreover, civil unions are getting more benefits from state governments with the passage of time.