Benefits for Couples in Same-Sex Civil Unions

Benefits for Couples in Same-Sex Civil Unions

By: M. Scott Gordon

If you and your partner are in a same-sex civil union and live in Chicago, do you have the same rights when it comes to healthcare coverage as couples in a same-sex marriage? It might seem logical that same-sex couples in civil unions and marriages would be treated similarly when it comes to determining healthcare coverage and benefits for a partner. However, as an article in Bloomberg BNA makes clear, a recent U.S. Supreme Court Case that made strong strides for the rights of couples in same-sex marriages actually may have sidestepped the issue of civil union benefits.

Impact of Obergefell v. Hodges for Civil Unions

Specifically, when the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges, it held that “employers must treat plan participants who are legally married to same-sex spouses in the same manner as they treat plan participants who are legally married to opposite-sex spouses.” Now, by and large, the Obergefell ruling represents an important step in securing rights for same-sex couples.

Discussing the principles of equality and equal access to rights and responsibilities that come with marriage, the Supreme Court holding emphasized that “there is no difference between same- and opposite-sex couples with respect to this principle,” but “by virtue of their exclusion from that institution [of marriage], same-sex couples are denied the constellation of benefits that the States have linked to marriage.” Through this reasoning, the Court concluded that the right to marry—and to have access to the benefits of marriage—is indeed a fundamental right protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. But what does Obergefell have to say about civil unions?

As the Bloomberg BNA article articulates, the Obergefell case “was silent on how employers must treat unmarried employees in civil unions or with registered domestic partners.” Given that the Supreme Court did not reach the issue of benefits for same-sex couples in civil unions, it is possible that employers will not provide the same benefits to those couples that would be required legally if they were married.

Civil Union Benefits in Illinois

Numerous states, as the article notes, do require employers to offer the same benefits to couples in civil unions that are available to couples in same-sex marriages. The article specifically cites Illinois as a state that “requires that employers treat employees’ same-sex spouses and civil union partners in the same manner as employees’ opposite-sex spouses.” But is this the case for all employers in the Chicago area?

According to the Illinois American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) website, whether your employer is required to offer the same benefits to persons in civil unions as in same-sex marriages depending on two things:

  • The type of employer; and
  • The type of benefits offered to married employees.

Employers that are defined as state, county, or municipal employers “must provide your civil union partner the same health insurance benefits that they provide to spouses of employees.” Things might get trickier, however, when we look at private employers. Employers with insured plans—which are governed by state insurance law—have to provide the same benefits to civil union partners. But employers with self-insured plans might not be required to do this.

If you have questions or concerns about the benefits to which you are entitled in a civil union, an experienced Chicago family law attorney can help. Contact the law firm of Gordon & Perlut, LLC today.