The legal classification ‘civil union’ originated as an alternative to marriage for gay and lesbian couples who could not enter into legal marriages with their same-sex partners. Like marriage, state law governs civil unions. States use civil union as a means of providing some modicum of protection and entitlement to same-sex couples who would otherwise lack legal status. Same-sex civil unions are similar to same-sex marriages but do not give partners all the rights, benefits and responsibilities that a married couple has. They typically provide state tax benefits, procedural rules and thus protection for dissolving a partnership, access to health insurance coverage, decision-making authority in medical situations involving an incapacitated partner, and co-parenting privileges.
Civil union status is granted as a prerogative of individual states. States decide who may enter into a civil union, how the enjoined parties must conduct themselves and how the civil union can be terminated. States that grant civil unions include Vermont, New Hampshire and New Jersey. New Jersey also offers domestic partnership benefits to both same- and opposite-sex couples whose partners are age 62 or older and civil union status to younger same-sex couples.
A couple must obtain a license from a town clerk and have their union certified by a person qualified to authorize civil unions. Both partners to the civil union must be aged 18 years or older, mentally competent and not legally joined to another person either by marriage or civil union. There is no residency requirement. Marriage and civil unions are alike in the respects that both require licenses, certification of license via a ceremony and exclusivity of legal partnership to exist between the partners bound by legal contract.
Couples united by civil union appeal to the same family court as legally married couples. In order to dissolve a civil union, the partners are subject to the same domestic relations laws too. They also are subject to the same rights and obligations as married couples seeking divorce. Most civil unions are resolved by divorce in order to create a permanent dissolution of the partnership just like legal marriages. Divorce law provides both fault and no-fault grounds for divorce, and a court has the authority to divide the property and award spousal support as it sees fit.
Nearly all states have a minimum residency requirement that must be met before a couple can file for divorce. In New Jersey, either spouse must have been a state resident for one year prior to filing a dissolution of civil union action, except in cases where one of the partners voluntarily engages in sexual intercourse with someone other than that person’s partner. In such cases, dissolution of civil union petitions can be filed immediately. In Vermont, petitioners for dissolution of civil union must be state residents also. In order to file for divorce, at least one partner must have been a resident of the state for six months, whereas to obtain a divorce, at least one partner must have been a resident for one year preceding the final divorce hearing. In New Hampshire, either spouse must be a resident for one year prior to filing for dissolution of civil union. Most states are protected from an obligation to recognize civil unions by DOMA, and therefore, dissolution of civil union can only be obtained from the state that granted the civil union.
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