New Jersey Civil Unions: What You and Your Partner Need to Know

New Jersey Civil Unions: What You and Your Partner Need to Know
This article originally appeared in the August 8, 2007 <I>Town Topics</i> of Princeton.

In the landmark decision of Lewis v. Harris, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that the equal protection guarantee of the State Constitution was violated by denying rights and benefits to committed same-sex couples that were statutorily given to heterosexual married couples. In response to this decision, in February 2007, New Jersey enacted legislation that attempts to give New Jersey same-sex couples the same status, in terms of legal rights and benefits, afforded to married couples. This newly created status is known in New Jersey as a "civil union."

How Do I Enter Into A New Jersey Civil Union And How Is It Terminated?
Two people can enter into a civil union if they: 1) are of the same sex; 2) are over 18 years old; 3) are not a party to another civil union, marriage, or domestic partnership (although if you and your partner are New Jersey domestic partners, entering into a civil union with the same partner will automatically terminate the domestic partnership); and 4) are not closely related. The process for entering into a civil union is the same as entering into a marriage. You and your partner must apply for and obtain a civil union license in the municipality where either you or your partner live. You and your partner must appear together to be issued a license. Additionally, you will need the required identification, the $28 license fee, and a witness. The ceremony of civil union commitment must occur within thirty days of your receipt of your civil union license. A New Jersey civil union is terminated the same way a marriage is terminated.

What Are the Benefits of Entering Into a New Jersey Civil Union?
According to the civil union legislation, a New Jersey civil union grants "all of the same benefits, protections and responsibilities under the law… as are granted to spouses in a marriage." Such benefits include: rights related to joint ownership of property, rights related to health and pension benefits, rights related to public assistance benefits, rights related to inheritance, and rights related to emergency care and hospital visitation, etc. However, along with these benefits come the same legal responsibilities as married couples including support obligations and shared liability for debts. In addition, you should also be aware that, for now, the Federal government will not acknowledge your civil union for the purpose of Federal benefits and protections such as Social Security, immigration protection, and taxation. Because the law is rapidly changing, it is important to consult a financial professional regarding the effect of your civil union on Federal issues.

Is a New Jersey Civil Union Right For Me?
A civil union is an important commitment that will affect all aspects of your life. The decision to enter into a New Jersey civil union is similar to a heterosexual couple's decision to marry, but involves some unique considerations. Since your civil union may not be recognized outside the State of New Jersey, there are some additional and important issues to discuss with your partner. For example, if you and your partner have children, you may want to consider a stepparent adoption proceeding to protect your parental rights should you move out of New Jersey. In addition, you should consult with an attorney about the steps that you can take to provide additional security to your partner and family such as with wills, health care proxies, powers of attorney and pre-civil union agreements.

The above provides a general overview of civil unions and attendant issues and considerations. For more information on civil unions, contact a Riker Danzig family law attorney for a consultation on your specific matter.