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Civil Unions
The Vermont Approach
© August 13, 2010, Demian


Vermont offered nearly the same spousal rights to same-sex couples as they did to opposite-sex couples who are legally married. These rights became effective July 1, 2000 except for provisions relating to insurance and taxes that became effective in 2001.

On April 7, 2009, Vermont’s legislature overrode the governor’s veto and made Vermont the 5th state to offer full, legal marriage to same-sex couples.
      [See our article: Vermont Offers Legal Marriage]

Because Vermont now offers full, legal marriage, Civil Unions are no longer being offered.


Brief History

On April 21, 2003, Vermont Governor Howard Dean remarked to the Associated Press on the third anniversary of the signing of the Civil Unions bill:

“I signed that bill because I believe no human being should be treated with less dignity than others simply because that person belongs to a different category or group.”

Randi Ziter’s 18th-century Putney Inn has hosted about 100 Civil Union ceremonies from 2000-to-June 2004. She says the same-sex ceremonies remain distinctly different from opposite-sex legal marriage parties: “The more traditional marriages tend to be a celebration of a future life. With the Unions, it’s more a celebration of a life that has already been shared.”

In late October 2005, 97 of Vermont’s 180 lawmakers signed a letter calling on the U.S. Congress to make Civil Union partners eligible for federal programs like Social Security and military survivor benefits.

“We urge you to extend the same federal statutory legal benefits and protections offered to married couples to those couples who have entered into a state-sanctioned civil union.”
Because Unions are not legal marriages — which would have some bearing as a legal status — such a request is likely to go unheeded, especially in a Republican controlled House and Senate.

The Vermont legislators’ letter also states:

“The granting of federal statutory benefits and protections to individuals who have already entered into a state-sanctioned Civil Union would not constitute the equivalent of establishing a federal definition of marriage.”
This presents Unions as some sort of work-around for the anti-gay DoMA law, which requires the federal system not recognize legal marriage between same-sex partners. This rational for recognition utilizes the non-legal marriage status of Unions.

However, DoMA requires that the federal system not “give effect to any public act, record, or judicial proceeding of any other State, territory, possession, or tribe respecting a relationship between persons of the same sex that is treated as a marriage.” Since the Vermont legislators are asking for Unions to be treated as a marriage (which triggers benefits such as Social Security), it is likely not to be honored.


Rationale

The reason for the new, beneficial law derives from a Vermont Supreme Court ruling, on December 1999, that requires same-sex couples to be treated the same as opposite-sex couples by the State.
      [See our article: Vermont Court Finding: Baker v. State of Vermont]

The ruling gave the Legislature two options — either provide legal marriage, or a nearly identical form of domestic partnership.

Rather than offer legal marriage — the same procedure to protect families as is offered to opposite-sex couples — the Vermont legislature created a new law labeled “Civil Union”.

By designing a totally separate form of marriage, which could rightly be called “marriage light,” they created an apartheid. As the U.S. Supreme Court ruled regarding segregation, there is no such thing as separate and equal.
      [See: Marrying Apartheid]

The new status offers a vastly improved range of protections for same-sex couples who live in Vermont never before available in the United States. Once signed up, a civilly unionized couple can say they are no longer “legal strangers” — they are finally “next-of-kin.”


Numbers of Unions

In spite of there being no benefits to non-Vermonters, as of July 2001, some 2,479 same-sex couples from more than 40 states, as well as from Europe and Japan, have gone to Vermont to be registered. The number of Vermont same- and opposite-sex couples that have obtained a union — and the only ones able to reap the legal benefits — number at 502 — less than 20 percent of those getting a union. About two thirds of all the unions are female couples.

As of January 4, 2002, the number of unions issued to same-sex couples was 3,471. Of those, 2,291 were to female couples, 1,180 to male. Of all of these, there have been three female couples and one male couple that have been issued a dissolution.

As of July, 2002, 4,222 couples have registered. 80 percent (3,533) were from out-of-state. At this time, there were six dissolutions.

In October 2002, the Vermont Office of Vital Records (Vermont Health Department) issued a report showing the breakdown of Unions registered through January 4, 2002. There were 4,371 civil unions, with the majority coming from outside Vermont. Couples came from 48 states, D.C., Canada and several other countries. Besides Vermont, the largest numbers were residents of New York, Massachusetts and California.

By November 2002, 4,979 unions have been issued, 4,203 for out-of-state residents, and 10 couples dissolved their union.

Most parties to a civil union, whether men or women, tended to be 35-39 years old. The average age difference between partners was 5.7 years. 66 percent of the Unions were between female partners.

Civil union partners tended to be highly educated, with 63 percent having completed at least four years of college.

As of January 2004, 6,613 unions were issued, and 25 were dissolved.

Vermont’s same-sex couples represent just 14 percent of the unions. About 1,900 households in Vermont defined themselves as same-sex couples in the 2000 Census. Only 936 Vermonters have sought civil unions, the rest were from other states.

By the end of December 2004, 7,549 couples had filed for a civil union. Only 1,137 lived in Vermont. There have been a total of 78 dissolutions. Slightly more than two-thirds of the couples have been women.

The numbers of those signing up is expected to decline since full, legal marriage has became available in Massachusetts (2004) and Canada (2005).
      [See: Massachusetts Offers Legal Marriage]
      [See: Canada Offers Legal Marriage]

As of April 2008, nearly 1,300 Vermont couples had a Civil Union. More than 8,000 have obtained a Union who live in other states.


Procedures

  • The civil union license is obtained from town clerks.
  • There is a $20 fee.
  • The unions are “certified” either by justices of the peace, judge, or willing member of the clergy.
  • Civil union couples also have the right to dissolve their unions through a “dissolution” process in Family Court.
To dissolve the union, you would need to reside in Vermont for a year.
(One of the parties would need to be a resident of Vermont for six months in order to apply for a dissolution, then remain a resident for another six months until the dissolution is made finalized.)


Key Civil Union Benefits

  • Abuse — Able to qualify for various abuse programs as spouses.
  • Adoption — Entitled to all the protections and benefits available when adopting. Same-sex couples already are allowed to adopt, but laws would reflect that those couples would now be treated as spouses.
  • Custody
  • Definitions — Use of State laws that confer benefits or rights to people based on their marital or family status, such as family landowner rights to hunt and fish, or definitions of family farmers.
  • Discrimination — Use of laws prohibiting discrimination based on marital status.
  • Compensation — Use of victims’ compensation and workers’ compensation related to spouses.
  • Family Leave
  • Health Care — Able to make medical decisions for incapacitated partner. Able to visit hospitals visitation and be notified of a partner’s condition.
  • Insurance — State employees are treated as spouses for insurance or continuing care contracts.
  • Lawsuits — Able to sue for wrongful death, the emotional distress caused by a partner’s death or injury, and loss of consortium caused by death or injury.
  • Property — Entitled to joint title, transfer from one to the other on death, and property transfer tax benefits.
  • Probate — Use probate law and procedures.
  • State Tax — Treated as an economic unit.
  • Testimony — Not be compelled to testify against one another.

Key Civil Union Negatives
  • No Federal Recognition — All the points mentioned in chart below.
  • Not Portable — Once outside of Vermont, you are not in a union.
  • Year Vermont Residency to De-Union — This is the same as is required for a Vermont legal marriage divorce. However, no other state may dissolve a Vermont union, like legal marriages can be ended. While unions are not likely to be recognized outside of Vermont — creating a sort of de facto de-union — should a couple separate, find new partners, and wish to sign up the new partner for job benefits, there is a problem. One common requirement for benefits is that neither of the partners be currently in a legal marriage, or in another domestic partnership. A couple would need to de-union — by one of the old partners residing in Vermont for a year — or be falsifying eligibility to obtain job benefits. A workplace or insurance carrier could sue for fraud and demand repayment should the old union still be active.

Warnings

Because of the year residency required to dissolve a Civil Union, we cannot recommend getting one unless the couple lives in Vermont, and plans to live there forever.

Should a couple have a falling-out, one of them would need to live in Vermont for six months before applying for a dissolution. It takes another six month residency before the dissolution is finalized.

We have been contacted by parties who do not live in Vermont, and they are distraught by this requirement. Usually, they are not able to move to Vermont.

Residency could be proven, for instance, by having a Vermont drivers license, by registering to vote there, or by actually living and working there, not merely by having a postal address in Vermont.

Besides the emotional reasons to dissolve a no longer functioning union, there are legal entanglements to consider. For instance, should one of the partners form a new relationship, they would not be able to sign up their new partner for workplace benefits because most employers require an affidavit that stipulates that the partners do not have another domestic partner.

While the union may be emotionally and socially important, for a non-Vermonter the price is too high, especially considering the fact that the union has, so far, been largely unrecognized outside of Vermont.

Finally, it is important to consider that Civil Unions are a codification of a second-class status.


Out-of-State Legal Reactions to Civil Unions

Civil unions do not have any legal weight in the federal sphere, and reactions from various states has been erratic — usually dismissing them as invalid.

  • Connecticut

    • Glen Rosengarten and Peter Downes had a Civil Union in 2000. Since neither of the men live in Vermont, Rosengarten applied in July 2001 to have the relationship dissolved in a Connecticut Superior Court (Rosengarten v. Downes). He feared that Downes might try to tap into his estate. The court ruled that it did not have jurisdiction.

    The Appellate Court, the second-highest court in Connecticut, which ruled that unions between same-sex couples do not fall under the state’s definitions of family relations matters. In the court’s ruling, in July 2002, it stated that Connecticut law does not recognize such relationships.

    Further, the court found persuasive that the Connecticut Legislature in 2002 had considered, but failed to act upon, bills that would have authorized same-sex marriage or Civil Unions. This, the court felt, was indicative of the state’s public policy against recognizing a same-sex, marriage-like relationship.

    Rosengarten died in November 2002. His lawyer, Kenneth Bartschi, said he expects the case to go forward in the state Supreme Court, challenging lower court rulings.

    Note: Since Connecticut offers legal marriage (since 2008) to same-sex couples, it is likely that a clear case can be made to recognize an out-of-state Civil Union or a registration.

  • Georgia

    • The second state to declare Civil Unions to be invalid, was Georgia. On January 23, 2002, a three-judge panel of the Georgia Court of Appeals released a narrow opinion, ruling against a lesbian mother. The unanimous panel said her Civil Union did not make her legally related to her partner, and could not substitute for legal marriage. The case involved a consent decree that prohibited Susan Burns and her ex-husband from having their children visit when an unrelated adult was staying overnight.

  • Illinois

    • The first state to make clear it will not honor Civil Unions was Illinois. Responding to a request in February 2001 from State Senator Edward Petka (R-Plainfield), Illinois’s Attorney General James Ryan wrote, “Illinois is not required to recognize civil unions entered into under the laws of Vermont or extended to persons who have entered into a civil union the benefits which may be extended to married persons.”

    He went on to say that while the U.S. Constitution’s “full faith and credit” clause requires states to recognize public acts, records, and judicial proceedings from other states, it “does not require a state to apply another state’s law in violation of its own legitimate public policy … A marriage between two individuals of the same sex is contrary to the public policy of this state.”

    Incorrectly claiming that the difference between marriage and civil union is “merely a matter of nomenclature,” Ryan wrote that recognizing civil unions would clearly violate state policy. He also highlighted the 1996 federal “Defense of Marriage Act,” (DoMA) which exempts states from recognizing same-sex marriage performed elsewhere. Contrary to his claims, DoMA does not address civil unions.

  • Indiana

    • The Indiana Civil Liberties Union (ICLU) on behalf of three Indiana same-sex couples filed a suit for legal marriage on August 22, 2002. All three had obtained Vermont Civil Unions. The suit, filed in Marion County Superior Court, demanded the right to marry in Indiana, or alternatively, full recognition of their Civil Unions.

    In the early part of May 2003, Judge S.K. Reid, dismissed the freedom to marry lawsuit.

  • Iowa

    • Woodbury County District Judge Jeffrey A. Neary, granted a Civil Union dissolution on November 14, 2003, without a hearing. Both parties had a stipulated agreement, and Neary signed the dissolution decree before realizing the relationship he was ending involved two women.

    Iowa residents Kimberly Brown and Jennifer Perez had entered into a Civil Union in March 2002. The parties subsequently agreed to divide their property and debts.

    Judge Neary said, “I don’t know if it would have changed my mind if I knew before I signed. My thought is, treat it like a contract or partnership and dissolve it.”

    Because the law concerning dissolution of Civil Unions is unclear, Neary believes it can be covered under the legal concept of “full faith and credit.” He would also be able to grant a Union dissolution by applying equity and partnership laws that govern the business world.

    While granting a dissolution, Iowa, like all U.S. states except for Vermont, does not recognize Civil Unions for any other purpose. And, like all other U.S. states at that time, except for Massachusetts, Iowa did not permit the marriage of same-sex couples.

    A group of six Iowa state legislators and one member of Congress, as well as church leaders asked for certiorari review by the Iowa Supreme Court to intervene on December 15, 2003, arguing that Iowa law does not recognize a marriage between two women.

    Iowa “recognizes only a man and a woman in a marriage, and that would also mean that a judge could not dissolve a marriage between a same-sex couple,” said state Sen. Neil Schuerer, one of the lawmakers challenging the divorce. It remains to be seen if the court goes along with the assurtion that a Civil Union (which the Iowa law does not address) is really a legal marriage (which it isn’t).

    The petition was granted by the Iowa Supreme Court. The Iowa Supreme Court heard oral argument on January 14, 2005. Much of the focus centered on whether the plaintiffs had standing to challenge the dissolution decree. One justice questioned whether the case was even properly before the court in light of the fact that appeal was not made by either of the former domestic partners or by the family court judge who ruled on the case. Another justice noted that while same-sex marriage is illegal in Iowa under that state’s version of the Defense of Marriage Act, nowhere in the state law is there a prohibition against Civil Unions. A decision in the Iowa case was expected in Spring 2005.

  • Massachusetts

    • In Salucco v. Alldredge, 17 Mass. L. Rep. 498 (Essex Sup. Ct., 2004), a family court dissolved a Civil Union at the request of the plaintiff, a resident of Massachusetts who filed a complaint in equity seeking to dissolve their Union, which was issued in May 2002. The defendant was a resident of Arkansas and did not file any responsive pleading, or enter his appearance in the Massachusetts action. The Massachusetts family court held that the parties were in need of a judicial remedy to dissolve their legal relationship created by the laws of Vermont.

    The former domestic partners requested the family court to enforce a separation agreement signed by the couple providing for the distribution of their property and a comprehensive settlement and resolution of all other rights and responsibilities between them. In granting the relief requested, the family court held that its subject matter jurisdiction included the adjudicatory power to enforce separation agreements that are free from fraud and coercion.

  • New York

    • On April 14, 2003, Nassau County New York Judge John P. Dunne ruled that the Vermont Civil Union should be recognized for the purpose of filing a wrongful death suit. John Langan lost his 15-year partner, Neal Conrad Spicehandler, during medical treatment for a broken leg.

    When Langan sued Manhattan’s St. Vincent’s Hospital, (Langan v. St. Vincent’s Hospital) where the unexpected death took place, the hospital argued he lacked standing. While Langan and Spicehandler had registered their Union in November 2000, they were not legally married. In most states, only legal relatives can sue for wrongful death or medical malpractice.

    In the judge’s ruling, he observed that common law spouses from out-of-state are allowed to sue for wrongful death under New York law. He wrote, “It is impossible to justify, under equal protection principles, withholding the same recognition from a union which meets all the requirements of a marriage in New York but for the sexual orientation of its partners.”

  • Texas

    • Judge Tom Mulvaney, of the 279th state district court, signed a divorce decree on March 3, 2003, for Russell Smith, 26, and John Anthony, 34, a Beaumont couple who were granted a Civil Union in Vermont in February 2002. Because both parties agreed to the divorce (Russell Smith v. John Anthon), appeals from the couple were unlikely. However, Attorney General Greg Abbott petitioned the court, arguing that because Texas doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages, the Anthony-Smith divorce never should have happened.

    “As a matter of law, a court cannot grant a divorce where no marriage existed,“ Abbott said in a news release.

    Judge Tom Mulvaney had a month to reverse his divorce decree, according to state law. If Mulvaney didn’t change his ruling, the attorney general’s office stated that they would consider appeals. At a hearing, at the end of March, Mulvaney vacated his ruling and ordered a new trial for Anthony and Smith. On March 31, 2003, Smith voluntarily withdrew his petition for dissolution, and Mulvaney dismissed the matter.

  • Virginia

    • On March 17, 2006, a Virginia judge ruled that a Vermont civil union custody order cannot be enforced in Virginia. The custody dispute involves the 3-year-old daughter of a lesbian couple who was born after the pair entered into a Vermont civil union. Janet and Lisa Miller-Jenkins moved to Vermont briefly after the union, but when the couple broke up, Lisa, the biological mother, returned with the child to Virginia. Lisa declared herself to be “ex-gay,” and hired a conservative Christian legal group to represent her.

    Virginia district court judge John Prosser had already ruled that Virginia’s ban on recognition of same-sex relationships leaves Janet without visitation rights. Vermont courts had ruled she does have visitation rights, and the matter is before both state supreme courts. But Prosser has now also overturned a lower court ruling that Janet could register her Vermont custody with Virginia courts.

    On November 28, 2006, the unanimous three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals of Virginia ruled in Miller-Jenkins v. Miller-Jenkins (No. 2654-04-4) that the Virginia courts must give “full faith and credit” to the child visitation order in favor of a Janet made earlier by the Vermont court. According to the opinion for the court by Judge Jere M.H. Willis, Jr., a federal statute, the Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act, 28 USC 1738A, takes priority over any Virginia law to the contrary, and is not affected by the Federal “Defense of Marriage Act.”
           [See our article: Defense of Marriage Act]

    The Virginia ruling recognizes the finality of the Vermont Supreme Court’s August 4, 2006 ruling (2006 Vt. LEXIS 159), in which that court stated that the Virginia courts did not have jurisdiction to make any decisions about the rights of the co-parent, a resident of Vermont.

    The judgment was based solely on the issue of visitation rights, not on any sort of recognition of the Civil Union.

  • West Virginia

    • In December 2002, a West Virginia circuit court judge in Marion County dissolved a Vermont civil union granted to a lesbian couple in July 2000. Two years after the civil union was granted, one party filed a complaint seeking dissolution based on irreconcilable differences. In re: the Marriage of Misty Gorman and Sherry Gump involved the lower court’s entry of an order in January 2003, dissolving the civil union “upon the grounds of irreconcilable differences” and decreeing that “the parties have no further legal responsibility or relationship with each other.”

    The circuit court judge also permitted one of the parties to resume the use of her former birth name. The lower court held that “[t]he parties are citizens of West Virginia in need of a judicial remedy to dissolve a legal relationship created by the laws of another state.”


Legal Challenge

The civil union law was challenged by an anti-union suit, which was rejected on December 26, 2001. The five Vermont Supreme Court justices dismissed the claims brought by some taxpayers, legislators and town clerks.

Reacting to the two claims, the high court said it was up to the House to decide whether the legislators who placed the $1 bets should have been disqualified.

It did not rule directly on the second claim, that the law violates town clerks’ religious beliefs, however, it said that it was a “highly questionable” … “proposition that a public official … can retain public office while refusing to perform a generally applicable duty of that office on religious grounds.“ Further, the court said that the law accommodates the town clerks’ concerns by explicitly permitting them to appoint an assistant to issue the licenses.


The group Vermonters for Civil Unions was formed to make sure that the union status remained and was not removed by hostile lawmakers. They have since changed their name, shifted their focus, and actively pursue legal marriage:

Vermont Freedom to Marry (VFM)
P.O. Box 879, Burlington, VT 05402-0879
802-388-2633
info@vtfreetomarry.org
vtfreetomarry.org


Not a Model for Family Recognition in U.S.

This domestic partnership status does not work as a model for America, because implementing an equivalent legal status to marriage requires duplicating 150-to-350 laws in each state, and more than 1,138 laws on the federal level. This is completely impractical.
      [See U.S. Federal Laws for the Legally Married.]

Further, domestic partnerships are usually not recognized outside of the issuing state. Because of the lack of portability, they create a patchwork legal status as a couple moves or vacations.

Registrations do not have any legal weight in the Federal sphere, and, to date, only California and New Jersey officially recognizes this kind of status from other states.
      [See: California: Registration]
      [See: New Jersey: Domestic Partnership Act]

While such contracts are an attempt to create equal treatment, they only reinforce a separate and totally unequal status, one we consider to be a manifestation of apartheid.
      [See: Marrying Apartheid: The Failure of Domestic Partnership Status]



Also please see our article:
What Rights Come with Legal Marriage? - Vermont


Differences Between Domestic Partner Registration and Legal Marriage
Registration
  1. Simple, notarized form registration
  2. No ceremony
  3. Mailed to the Office of Vital Records (handles business affairs)
  4. Conveys some rights
  5. Not a true next-of-kin
  6. Must cohabit
  7. Must share finances
  8. Ended by mailing a termination form
Legal Marriage
  1. License required
  2. No ceremony required
  3. License officiated by clergy, court, or justice of the peace
  4. Conveys hundreds of rights
  5. A true next-of-kin
  6. Can live apart
  7. Not required to share finances
  8. Divorce laws apply

Federal rights NOT Covered by Registration
  • Immigration Rights — Ability for a non-U.S. spouse to become a full citizen.
  • Social Security — Ability to collect benefits upon death of a spouse.
  • Federal Taxes — No joint filing. Pay taxes on job benefits.
  • More than 1,138 laws that are triggered by legal marriage
          [See U.S. Federal Laws for the Legally Married]








Governments that offer Full Legal Marriage
Nations

    Netherlands (2001)
    Belgium (2003)
    Canada (2005)
    Spain (2005)
    South Africa (2005)
    Norway (2009)
    Sweden (2009)
    Iceland (2010)
    Argentina (2010)
    Portugal (2010)
    Denmark (2012)
    France (2013)
    New Zealand (2013)
    Brazil (2013)
    Uruguay (2013)
    New Zealand (2013)
    United Kingdom
      (England, Wales, Scotland) (2013)
    Luxembourg (2014)
    Finland (2014)
    Ireland (2015)
    United States (2015)
    Colombia (2016)
    Germany (2017)
    Taiwan (2017)
    Malta (2017)
US States & Territories

    Massachusetts (2004)
    California (2008)
    Connecticut (2008)
    Iowa (2009)
    Vermont (2009)
    New Hampshire (2009)
    District of Columbia (2009)
    New York (2011)
    Maine (2012)
    Washington (2012)
    Maryland (2013)
    Rhode Island (2013)
    Delaware (2013)
    Minnesota (2013)
    Illinois (2013)
    Utah (2013)
    New Jersey (2013)
    Hawaii (2013)
    New Mexico (2013)
    Michigan (2014) - stayed pending legal challenge
    Oregon (2014)
    Wisconsin (2014)
    

    Arkansas (2014) - stayed pending legal challenge
    Pennsylvania (2014)
    Indiana (2014)
    Nevada (2014)
    Virginia (2014)
    Oklahoma (2014)
    Idaho (2014)
    West Virginia (2014)
    Alaska (2014)
    Arizona (2014)
    Wyoming (2014)
    Kansas (2014) - stayed pending legal challenge
    Florida (2014)
    Colorado (2014)
    North Carolina (2014)
    South Carolina (2014)
    Montana (2014)
    Alabama (2015)
    U.S. Supreme Court (June 26, 2015):
      Ruling: All U.S. States must now
      allow same-sex couples the
      freedom of legal marriage.
Native American Tribes

    Coquille Tribe, Oregon (2009)
    Mashantucket Pequot, Connecticut (2011)
    Suquamish Tribe, Washington (2011)
    Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Washington (2013)
    Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, Minnesota (2013)
    Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, Michigan (2013)
    Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, Michigan (2013)
    Santa Ysabel Tribe, California (2013)
    Confederated Tribes of the Colville Nation, Washington (2013)
    Cheyenne, Oklahoma (2013)
    Arapaho, Oklahoma (2013)
    Leech Lake Tribal Court, Minnesota (2013)
    Puyallup Tribe, Washington (2914)
    Wind River Indian Reservation, Wyoming (2014)
    Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, Michigan, (2014)
    Colville Confederated Tribes, Washington (2014)
    Central Council of Tlingit, Alaska (2015)
    Haida Indian Tribes, Alaska (2015)

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