Marriage for same-sex couples became legal in New Jersey in September 2013 when Governor Chris Christie rejected an appeal of a court order permitting marriage equality. This decision had symbolized the end of the lengthy battle for marriage equality in New Jersey—with the first steps being domestic partnerships in 2004 and civil unions later in 2007. The 2013 decision made New Jersey the 14th state in the nation to allow marriage for same-sex couples.
In the summer of 2015, the United States Supreme Court legalized marriage for same-sex couples across the country. The majority decision held that the Constitution’s equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment guarantees the right to marry, thus same-sex couples may not be deprived of that fundamental right. Given New Jersey’s prior acceptance of civil unions, the Supreme Court decision does not change New Jersey law. Instead, the Supreme Court decision, therefore, benefits same-sex couples from New Jersey who decide to move out of state.
In New Jersey, a civil union is the union of two individuals of the same sex. Couples in a civil union are legally recognized in New Jersey, and therefore entitled to the legal benefits afforded to married couples. These couples are also subject to the legal responsibilities characteristic of marriage in New Jersey. However, civil unions are not exactly the same as a marriage, and a couple must go through the marriage process if they wish to transform their civil union into a marriage relationship.
Entering into a Civil Union
The procedure for entering into a civil union in New Jersey mirrors the marriage process. In the municipality where either member of the couple resides, a civil union license must be obtained from the clerk or registrar. The couple must appear together to receive the license and carry with them approved forms of identification, Social Security numbers, the names and county of both of their parents, a $28 fee, and a witness who is at least 18 years old. The license will be issued 72 hours after the application process is complete. Then, the couple must have a ceremony of civil union within 30 days of the issuance of the civil union license. Again reflecting the marriage process, the civil union ceremony can be performed by the same kinds of people authorized to perform marriages in New Jersey, such as ministers or judges.
For two people to establish a civil union in New Jersey, they must satisfy the following requirements:
- Not be a party to another civil union, domestic partnership, or marriage in this state or that is recognized by this state;
- Be of the same sex; and
- Be at least 18 years of age, except that applicants under 18 may enter into a civil union with parental consent. Applicants under age 16 must obtain parental consent and have the consent approved in writing by any judge of the Superior Court, Chancery Division, Family Part.
Rights and Responsibilities
As mentioned, the civil union status subjects couples to the legal rights and responsibilities specific to married couples in New Jersey. The legal responsibilities imposed once a civil union is created include liability for the other partner’s debts, limitations on the ability to make unilateral decisions regarding property and inheritance, and the obligation to support the partner during the civil union and if it is terminated. Legal rights afforded to couples include rights to:
- Family leave benefits
- Joint ownership of property
- Insurance, health and pension benefits
- State public assistance benefits
- Legal obligations and benefits in taxes
- The privilege not to testify against a civil union partner in court proceedings
- Emergency medical care and hospital visitation
- Rights to receive workers’ compensation if a civil union partner dies while at work
- Inheritance rights
- Eligibility to bring wrongful death and other claims
- Forums relating to separation, termination of the civil union, and caring for the couple’s children
Civil Unions and Marriage
Given the new legal advancements in the area of marriage equality, there is often confusion regarding couples in a civil union who wish to marry. It is important to understand that although marriage for same-sex couples is now legal, couples in a civil union do not automatically have their relationships converted into marriages. Couples wishing to become married will have to go through the necessary marriage requirements and logistics in order to do so, starting with the marriage license application process in their municipality. Even after the civil union couple enters into marriage, the civil union will remain intact and on file with the Office of Vital Statistics and Registry, unless the couple chooses to dissolve the civil union. In these particular circumstances, if a couple in a civil union wishes to marry their same partner, a dissolution is not necessary. A civil union need not be dissolved in order to enter into marriage, as long as the same partners are getting married. Hence, if someone currently in a civil union wishes to marry a different partner, they will first need to seek dissolution of their civil union.
Matrimonial Attorneys in Point Pleasant Beach
If you have questions regarding the marriage or civil union process, you should speak with a matrimonial attorney. At Villani & DeLuca, our family law attorneys have a wide range of experience handling matters associated with marriage for same-sex couples. Our attorneys are here to help you make the best legal decisions regarding your relationships. Call our office for a free initial consultation today!