What is the Difference Between Civil Union and Marriage?

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  • Written By: Amanda R. Bell
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 31 January 2020
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The differences between a civil union and marriage are numerous. In the U.S., for example, marriage provides couples with over 1,000 rights, protections, and tax benefits; these same rights are typically not extended to those in a civil union. There is also in difference in how these two partnerships are legally viewed; marriage is recognized by nearly every government across the globe. A civil union, however, is only recognized by governments that allow that form of legal status. A civil union and marriage also differ in ease of termination, or dissolution, of the partnership.

Three of the main differences in which a civil union and marriage differ are taxes, legal protections, and health issues. Under the U.S. tax system, married couples can file jointly or separately, thereby proving themselves to be a family unit, which allows for additional deductions, credits, and often a reduction in tax liability. Despite the fact that those in a civil union are also a family unit, they are ineligible for these same benefits, and often end up paying more in taxes than a married couple with similar finances.


In many countries, when one member of a married couple passes on, any assets left to the surviving spouse may be considered tax free or subject to reduced taxation. A surviving partner in a civil union, in most cases, will have to pay taxes on anything left behind. In the U.S., a surviving partner of a civil union is also ineligible to collect the deceased partner's Social Security benefits, something married couples may be entitled to. While a marriage often provides each spouse with assurances that, with a proper will, all marriage assets, retirement funds, and life insurance policies will be turned over to the surviving spouse, those in a civil union are left vulnerable to lawsuits for the same assets from other family members, even if the deceased had a will.

In a marriage, when one spouse works for an employer that provides health insurance, he or she can often add the spouse to the policy. In the majority of cases, this same benefit is not extended to partners in a civil union. This difference between a civil union and marriage can make it exceedingly difficult and expensive for those in a civil union to carry health insurance, especially in cases where one partner chooses to stay home with children, thus making that partner ineligible for employer-covered health insurance.

Nearly every country recognizes the marriages of other countries, to the point that many governments allow citizens to get married in another country without completing any additional paperwork other than obtaining a translation of the marriage certificate, if applicable. This is not the case with a civil union. In order for a couple entering into a civil union to have their limited rights recognized, they can only live in an area that recognizes civil unions. These localities are often few and far between, thereby limiting job opportunities and travel.

As civil unions are not yet recognized in the majority of areas, terminating one can prove difficult. While a marriage can be ended, either through divorce, dissolution, or annulment, by whichever jurisdiction a couple claims residency in, a civil union can only be ended by a government that recognizes it. This means that couples in a civil union who have subsequently moved to an area that does not recognize it as legal may often have to move back to the area they established it in originally to claim residency. This can take anywhere from three months to a year. These differences between a civil union and marriage are also at the forefront of the debate concerning same-sex marriage.


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