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Civil union

A civil union is one of several terms for a civil status similar to marriage, typically created for the purposes of allowing homosexual couples access to the benefits enjoyed by married heterosexuals (see also same-sex marriage); it can also be used by couples of differing sexes who do not prefer to enter into the legal institution of marriage (perhaps out of solidarity with those who fight for equality) but who would rather be in a union more similar to a common-law marriage.

Many different types of civil unions exist. Some are identical to marriage in nearly every respect except name; some have many but not all of the rights accorded to married couples; some are simple registries (also called domestic partnerships.)

Some jurisdictions that have passed civil unions include Vermont in the United States; Quebec and Nova Scotia in Canada; and France, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, and Germany.

In 2001, the Netherlands gave same-sex marriage equal status with opposite-sex marriage, in addition to its 1998 "registered partnership" law (civil union) for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. Belgium did likewise in 2003, as did the province of Ontario, Canada, in June of that year. The highest courts of Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia have required Canada to recognize same-sex marriage nationwide by 2004, though this is being appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. See same-sex marriage.

A much larger number of jurisdictions, largely individual municipalities and counties, have passed rules to register same-sex unions; for information on this, see domestic partnership.

Table of contents

Civil Unions in Vermont

The controversial civil unions law enacted in Vermont in 2000 was passed as a response to the Vermont Supreme Court[?] ruling in Baker v. Vermont requiring that the state grant same-sex couples the same rights and privileges accorded to married couples under the law. There are still many people who are strongly opposed to the idea of same-sex marriage, so the legislature came up with the idea of civil unions as a compromise between groups seeking equal rights for homosexuals, and groups objecting to gay marriage.

A Vermont civil union is nearly identical to a legal marriage. It carries the same rights and responsibilities, granting partners next-of-kin rights and other protections that heterosexual married couples take for granted. However, despite the "full faith and credit" clause of the United States Constitution, civil unions are generally not recognized outside of the state of Vermont in the absence of specific legislation. New York City's Domestic Partnership Law, passed in 2002, recognizes civil unions formalized in other jurisdictions.

The civil union law is hailed by some as a fair compromise to the issues before the legislature. Others are angry that the legislature did not go so far as to legalize marriage between homosexual couples, and still others are angry that the legislature granted homosexual couples something so similar to marriage. It has been a politically charged issue within the state of Vermont, and throughout the United States.

Civil unions can be dissolved in Vermont family court in exactly the same manner as divorce of married couples: as of July 2002, four such unions had been so dissolved. But while there is no residency requirement to contract a civil union, there is a six month residency requirement to dissolve one. The attempt of Glen Rosengarten to obtain, in his home state of Connecticut, a formal dissolution of his Vermont civil union with Peter Downes, then a resident of New York City, was rejected by the court of appeals on the basis of lack of jurisdiction. Though New York City recognizes civil unions contracted in other jurisdictions, it is not clear if dissolutions of civil unions would be similarly recognized. This was the first case of a non-Vermont resident seeking a dissolution of a civil union, and it seems reasonable to anticipate difficulty in other such cases.

Civil Unions in Canada

Although the definition of marriage in Canada is a federal law, marriage and other vital statistics are administered by the provinces. So far, two provinces have decided to recognize same-sex partners: Quebec and Nova Scotia.

See Canadian Ministry of Justice: Marriage and Legal Recognition of Same-sex Unions, A Discussion Paper (November 2002) (http://canada.justice.gc.ca/en/dept/pub/mar/index#toc)

The M. v. H. decision of the Supreme Court of Canada extended common-law marriage to include same-sex couples.

Decisions in Ontario and Quebec courts during the summer of 2002, and in British Columbia in Spring 2003, are liable to force the federal government to grant full marriage to homosexual couples within two years though the federal government has appealed those decision.

For more information, see also same-sex marriage.


Pursuant to a range of activism and to the M. v. H. decision, the province of Quebec's legislature decided to create civil unions for same-sex couples modifying the Civil Code of Quebec. The law was enacted on June 24, 2002 See: Civil Code of Quebec [CCQ] Book 2: 'The Family', Title One.1, arts. 521.1 to 521.19).

A civil union is a contracted into by same-sex partners 18 years of age and older, who are not otherwise married, not in another civil union or who are not closely related following prescribed formalities similar to the regime of marriage. The civil union carries obligations and benefits equivalent to that of marriage including the obligation of support (CCQ art. 585) and the establishment of a family patrimony and family residence[?] (CCQ art. 521.6) and may otherwise be modified by a contract (CCQ 521.8) similar to a pre-nuptial agreement and may agree to a particular property regime similar to available matrimonial regimes. It creates a family connection between the spouses and their relatives (CCQ art. 521.7). Judicial conciliation is merited "when the spouses cannot agree on their rights and performance of their duties" (CCQ art. 521.9). Such union may be annuled within three years if irregularly contracted (CCQ arts. 521.10-521.11). A civil union ends at death of one of the partners or may be dissolved by judicial dissolution or by a 'transaction agreement' and 'joint declaration' before a civil law notary and recorded en minute if both partners consent and they settle all the consequences of the dissolution (CCQ arts. 521.13-521.16). Judicial dissolution is merited when "the interests of the common children of the spouses are at stake" or where the parties cannot otherwise agree (CCQ art. 521.17 para. 1). Provisional orders of support, custody and access may be entered during the pendancy of the dissolution action (CCQ art. 521.71 para. 2) and the court may, upon or after pronouncing dissolution decide maintenance, custody and education issues in the best interests of and with due regard to the rights of the children (CCQ art. 521.17, para. 3).

The act establishing the regime of civil union also modified rules creating filiation for biological children of one of the partners, and for adopted children as well as the recognition of parental authority and child support obligations so they will apply to civil union couples as well as married couples.

External links:

Nova Scotia

On June 4, 2001, Nova Scotia became the first province in Canada to register same-sex relationships. The registration, which costs $Cdn15, is for a "domestic partnership" at the Office of Vital Statistics. However, unlike other "domestic partnerships" at the civic level, this has a force similar to that of marriage because it is registered with the same authority that registers marriages, and because it gives the couple access to some 20 of the most important matrimonial laws.

External link: Information from Religious Tolerance.org (scroll down) (http://www.religioustolerance.org/hom_marf.htm)

Registered Partnerships in Denmark

Civil unions were introduced in Denmark by law of June 7th, 1989, the world's first such law. It has the form of a registered partnership (Danish: "registreret partnerskab"), but has almost all the same qualities as marriage. All legal and fiscal rights and obligations are as for a heterosexual marriage, with four exceptions:

  • registered partners cannot adopt, with the exception that one party can adopt the biological children of the other
  • registered partners cannot have joint custody of a child, except by adoption
  • laws making explicit reference to the sexes of a married couple don't apply to registered partnerships
  • regulations by international treaties do not apply unless all signatories agree.

Registered partnership is by civil ceremony only. The Danish state church has yet to decide how to handle the issue, but the general attitude of the church seems positive but hesitant. Some priests perform blessings of gay couples, and this is accepted by the church, which states that the church blesses people, not institutions.

Divorce for registered partners follow the same rules as ordinary divorces.

Only citizens of Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway and Iceland can enter a registered partnership in Denmark. This list is adjusted whenever a new country introduces gay marriage. This rule excludes foreigners from entering gay marriages that won't be legally valid in their home country.

As of January 1st, 2002 there were more than 2000 registered partnerships in Denmark, of which 220 had children.

Official links:

Registered Partnerships in Germany

A law about registered partnerships took effect on August 1, 2001. It was challenged before the supreme court, because the German constitution contains the sentence "marriage and family enjoy the special protection of the state". The supreme court ruled in July 2002 that the new law does not lower the protection of marriage and family and let the law stand.

Couples entering registered partnerships are required to support each other financially. A non-working partner is covered by the other partner's health insurance. Registered partners enjoy the same rights as married couples when it comes to inheritance law and the right to refuse testimony in court.

Germans can enter registered partnerships with non-Germans who then gain the right to live in Germany and to become German citizens eventually.

There are no adoption rights for registered partnerships. In tax law, marriages still have a significant advantage over registered partnerships; it is expected that the supreme court will remove this disparity before long.

Civil Unions in France

This as well as sections for other jurisdictions must be added to.

Civil Unions in Switzerland

On September 22, 2002, voters in the canton of Zurich voted to extend a number of marriage rights to same-sex partners, including tax, inheritance, and social security benefits. Partners must both live in the canton and formally commit themselves six months in advance to running a household and supporting and aiding one another.

External link: PlanetOut News story (http://www.planetout.com/news/article?2002/09/23/4)

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