Civil Unions in Illinois

On June 1, 2011, the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act took effect. This law provides for the certification and registration of a “civil union” in the state of Illinois. Civil unions will not, however, be recognized by the Federal government. A civil union is defined as “a legal relationship between two persons, of either same or opposite sex, established pursuant to [the Act].” This June, over 1,600 civil union licenses were issued in the state.

The law creates a union that is explicitly not marriage, but which does approximate the state of marriage for the purposes of Illinois law. The Act provides 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.” (750 ILCS 75/20 (2011)).

Civil unionhood extends many benefits to couples who cannot or choose not to enter into a marriage. It provides members with common law rights of inheritance and access to health insurance, as well as the right to be recognized as a parent to any child born of such a union.

Because Illinois now recognizes a legal relationship that the Federal government does not, there are a number of inconsistencies that may create both benefits and challenges to couples entering into civil unions. Certain couples, whether heterosexual or homosexual, may choose to enter into a civil union because, as interpreted currently, it will not operate as a “terminating” event for purposes of Federal and/or other benefits. For example, if a widow/er or former spouse is receiving social security, pension, or other benefits which would be discontinued by that individual’s entry into another marriage, entry into a civil union would provide the legal recognition and benefits of a spouse in Illinois without operating to terminate the benefits being received.

Many aspects of civil unions will remain complicated. For instance, although members of a civil union who have children in Illinois may both be recognized as parents under Illinois law, other states may not recognize that parental connection based only on the civil union status. This has the potential to cause problems when a non-biological parent or non-first adoptive parent travels with the child across state lines. For that reason, a supplemental cohabitation agreement or second parent adoption may still be advised.

Dissolving a civil union will present challenges as well. Although the Act incorporates the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act, there are practical aspects of a dissolution of marriage which will not easily translate, primarily where they intersect the Federal government’s power. For example, property transfers that occur incidental to a divorce are non-taxable events. However, this benefit does not extend to the dissolution of a civil union. Likewise, the payment of maintenance is usually tax deductible to the payor spouse and taxed as income to the payee spouse. However, the payment of maintenance from one ex-member of a civil union to the other will not enjoy the same tax status.

Family law practitioners in Illinois, including Gwendolyn J. Sterk and the Family Law Group, will be carefully watching the pioneers of civil unionhood as they navigate this new system. In the meantime, we are ready to help prepare those entering into or deciding to leave civil unions with a combination of traditional protections and sound interpretation of the new law’s impact on parenthood, inheritance, taxes, other benefits, and more.

Our Family Law Group has free consultations available regarding these issues. Contact us today to schedule an appointment.


This is a legal advertisement from Sterk Family Law Group. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be construed as such. This article is for informational and educational purposes only.

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