15850 W. Bluemound Rd. Suite 304 • Brookfield, WI 53005

15850 W. Bluemound Rd. Suite 304 • Brookfield, WI 53005 • 262-788-5335

What’s the difference between civil union, domestic partnership, and marriage?

Recently, the definition of legal marriage in the US has gone through some significant changes. Before the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, several states offered legal protections to same-sex couples through civil unions and domestic partnerships. Today, although same-sex couples have the same rights as heterosexual couples to marry, civil unions and domestic partnerships are still in the picture.

a wedding ceremony

Here are some of the distinctions between these relationships:

What is a Civil Union?

A civil union refers to a legally recognized relationship status that has many of the same protections as a marriage and can be formed by either opposite-sex or same-sex couples.

The benefits conferred by civil unions vary according to state law but may include things such as property rights, health coverage, tort claims, and adoption. Before the Supreme Court ruling, civil unions offered same-sex couples the opportunity to have some of the same rights afforded to married heterosexual couples. However, the protections allowed under civil unions are only recognized by individual states rather than under federal law.

Additionally, civil unions are not accepted in every state and do not confer tax, social security, and other significant benefits.

Domestic Partnerships

Like civil unions, domestic partnerships are a form of legal relationship that gives limited state rights to both unmarried same-sex and opposite-sex couples. Domestic partnerships can be created at a state or municipal level and may or may not be recognized outside of their creating jurisdictions.

Domestic partnership rights may be similar to civil union rights depending on the state or municipal laws. Some of the most valuable domestic partnership benefits in Wisconsin include:

  • The right to inherit under intestate succession if a partner dies without a will.
  • The transfer of real estate between partners without taxes.
  • Presumption of joint tenancy in real estate co-owned by the partners.
  • Family medical leave for a sick or dying partner.
  • Hospital visitation rights.
  • The right to sue for a partner’s death caused by the negligent or reckless conduct of another individual or company.
  • The right to receive worker’s compensation death benefits if the partner died in a workplace accident.
  • The right to authorize organ donation on behalf of a deceased partner.
  • The right to admit an incapacitated partner to various healthcare facilities.
  • Application of the spousal privilege so that a domestic partner cannot be compelled to testify against his or her partner.

In Wisconsin, the legislature enacted laws that included procedures for forming and ending a domestic partnership relationship, and a registry for those couples who wanted to establish a domestic partnership officially.

On April 1, 2018, the state stopped accepting domestic partnership applications. However, at present registered domestic partners can remain in this status until such time as they complete specific steps to end their legal connection. (Domestic partnerships are limited to only same-sex couples in Wisconsin. The state domestic partnership registry, set forth in Wis. Stat. chapter 770, should not be confused with the state employee domestic partnership benefits offered under Wis. Stat. chapter 40.

If you were a state employee, gay or heterosexual, you could designate your domestic partner to receive certain employee benefits similar to those available to a spouse, such as medical insurance, retirement benefits, and long-term care insurance. Effective Jan. 1, 2018, many of these benefits have been terminated for existing domestic partners and are no longer available to any future partners of state employees.

The same act (2017 Wis. Act 59) that terminated the domestic partnership registry under Wis. Stat. chapter 770 also did away with domestic partnership benefits under Wis. Stat. chapter 40 for state employees.)


Civil unions and domestic partnerships have offered unmarried couples a way to have some of the benefits afforded to married couples within the boundaries of their creating jurisdictions. The degree to which a civil union or domestic partnership is recognized depends on the state.

The definition of a legal marriage is also dependent on state law to some extent. For instance, in some jurisdictions, a couple can form a common law marriage by living together for a specific amount of time and holding themselves out as spouses. However, several states, including Wisconsin, do not recognize common-law marriage.

In most states, couples can apply for a marriage license, pay the required fee, and get married by an authorized officiant in the presence of competent witnesses. Wisconsin law sets out the minimum age requirement for marriage as well as the other steps a couple must take to obtain their license and legally marry.

Once a couple follows these steps, they will have all of the rights that come with being married in any state.