Civil Unions vs. Marriage: What’s the difference?

“Marriage” is the voluntary union of one person to another.[1] According to the state of Illinois, a “civil union” is a legal relationship between 2 persons, of either the same or opposite sex.[2] For purposes of comparison, a domestic partnership in California is defined as “two adults who have chosen to share one another’s lives in an intimate and committed relationship of mutual caring.”[3] After reading the above, you may be asking yourself “well, what’s the difference?” In my opinion, not much. The primary differences come into what rights are afforded to people in a civil union as compared to a traditional marriage.

Illinois General Assembly has stated that “a party to a civil union is entitled to the same legal obligations, responsibilities, protections, and benefits as are afforded or recognized by the law of Illinois to spouses, whether they derive from statute, administrative rule, policy, common law, or any other source of civil or criminal law.”[4] Seems like people in a civil union have the same rights as people in a marriage. Not exactly. Most newspapers have been claiming the rights of people to a civil union include the right to visit a sick partner in the hospital, disposition of a deceased loved one’s remains and the right to make decisions about a loved one’s medical care.[5] The question than remains, at what point do those rights that are afforded to a man and woman not extend to a gay couple? Only time will tell. However, let me highlight some of the rights afforded to gay couples in California that may shed some light on the future of Illinois’ Civil Union act.

  • Domestic partners owe each other the fiduciary duty of the highest good faith and fair dealing.[6]
  • Typical community property laws apply to the domestic partners as if they were a man and woman.[7]
  • Domestic partners are not exempted from the Federal gift and estate tax when one partner transfers his or her real estate to both partners jointly. In a traditional marriage, the spouses would be eligible for the exemption.[8]
  • Domestic partners are entitled to all the same employee benefits as a married couple (including health and retirement plans).[9] However, since the federal government does not recognize a domestic partnership, domestic partners do not have the same rights as a married couple in a federal retirement plan.
  • A domestic partner may bring a wrongful-death lawsuit for the death of his or her partner.[10]
  • Domestic partners may keep their communications privileged and they have the right not to testify against the other, same as a married couple.[11]
  • Domestic partners are allowed to take part in the intestate distribution of their partner’s estate to the same extent the partners were a married couple.[12]

The above includes just a few examples of the rights afforded to domestic partners. By examining the above, you most likely noticed the same pattern as me, domestic partners have all the same rights as married couples except when it comes to the Federal Government. Therefore, I would expect that civil unions in Illinois will mirror the situation in California. No matter how you look at the situation though, a domestic partnership or a civil union will never be marriage to those involved in a domestic partnership or civil union. The reason being (I would guess) is that gay couples want to be viewed equal in the eyes of the law, not just by the rights and responsibilities given to them but in terms of the name. “Why can a man and woman be married but a gay couple cannot?” A question debated by most Christians and a decision that will plague politicians until the United States Supreme Court gives this nation guidance. On a related note, Thomas Jefferson once wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptists about the separation of church and state.[13] Will this famous idea in America’s legal and political history play a part in shaping the rights of gay couples? Once again, only time will tell.


[2] Illinois General Assembly Bill SB 1716

[3] California Family Code section 297(a).

[4] Illinois General Assembly Bill SB 1716


[6] Cal. Fam. Code section 297.5

[7] Id.

[8] Internal Revenue Code sections 2056, 2503, 2523

[9] Cal. Fam. Code section 760

[10] Cal. Code Civ. Proc. Section 377.60(a) and (l)

[11] Cal. Evid. Code section 970 and 980

[12] Cal. Probate Code section 6401


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