It has not been very long ago that civil unions did not exist in New Jersey. Before the Domestic Partnership Act the only option for same sex couples was to create a domestic partnership, but the benefits were limited. One the NJ Domestic Partnership Act passed couples had to option to keep their status as a domestic partnership or convert it to a civil union. In order to convert to a civil union, parties can obtain a civil union license application from the local registrar’s office. When a couple enters into a civil union, the domestic partnership is automatically terminated.
Each state has different regulations pertaining to civil unions and the rights and privileges associated with them. Many states do not even recognize them but under New Jersey state law, partners who have entered a civil union share health, pension and insurance benefits. However, they do not have the same rights as a married couple according to the federal laws. Civil unions are not considered to be a “marriage” therefore partners are not considered to be in a spousal relationship and do not have the same entitlements of a heterosexual married couple has.
The NJ Domestic Partnership Act which took effect in 2004 was not repealed by the civil union law. The DPA simply grants couples some basic rights such as making health care decisions and receiving tax exemptions. A same sex couple may choose a civil union or a domestic partnership. If they choose to engage in a civil union the domestic partnership is dissolved. For partners who do not wish to enter a domestic partnership their civil union will remain in effect. Domestic partnerships can be formed by same sex or opposite sex couples who are over 62.
Civil unions offer many more rights than what are granted to the participants in a domestic partnership. In New Jersey a civil union offers a couple the same legal rights and responsibilities that a heterosexual couple enjoys. According to the legislation they have “all of the same benefits, protections and responsibilities” which are granted to two spouses. This allows the two parties in a civil union to receive the rights to the benefits associated with family leave, insurance, pension and health benefits, and rights associated with emergency medical care as well as hospital visitation. A partner who is in a civil union has the right to receive workers’ compensation benefits if their partner dies in the workplace. They also have rights to bring claims that used to be exclusively to spouses of a marriage such as claims associated with wrongful death. They may also have the right to refuse to testify against their partner in court proceedings. The partners may jointly share ownership of property and also have the responsibilities, obligations and benefits which relate to taxes which are imposed by the municipality or state. Another responsibility that comes with a civil union is the liability for the other partner’s debts.
If a couple who is in a civil union chooses to terminate it they are required to file a “request for termination” with the Superior Court of New Jersey. The process is very similar to dissolving a heterosexual marriage, especially in cases where children or property are involved. Basically the same steps are involved and the same provisions apply such as alimony, division of assets and determining the responsibilities pertaining to the children. Of course the circumstances for each case will be unique and a NJ family law attorney can help the couple work through all the details.