Gay and Lesbian Legal Groups Release Joint Publication On Practical Impact of Vermont Civil Union Law

July 17, 2000 12:00 am

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NEW YORK — In anticipation of widespread interest by couples who wish to join into civil unions in Vermont, the nation’s four leading gay and lesbian legal organizations have issued a joint publication to advise people about the new legal terrain they may now enter.

“A Historic Victory: Civil Unions for Same-Sex Couples – What’s Next!” provides practical information on the benefits of obtaining civil unions, the concerns some couples may have about civil unions and the legal impact of Vermont’s civil unions on lesbian and gay couples nationwide. The booklet was published jointly by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project.

“Securing civil unions in Vermont was a huge milestone. Now, the whole country needs to know how civil unions work and what exactly they mean,” said Matt Coles, Director of the ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project.

Following the Vermont Supreme Court decision in Baker v. State, in December, 1999, the Vermont Legislature enacted a law which creates a comprehensive legal status for same sex couples. To obtain a civil union, a couple must go through the same process as they would to obtain a marriage license and certificate. Couples who enter into a civil union are treated as spouses and family for purposes of all Vermont laws, including inheritance, taxes, medical decision-making and parenting rights. To leave a civil union, the couple must have a “dissolution” proceeding in the courts identical to the divorce process.

“This is an exciting time. Without a doubt, we are in a new era for civil rights for gay people and for our families,” said Mary Bonauto, an attorney with Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders in Boston, who is the principal author of the booklet and co-counsel in the Vermont marriage case.

Since a civil union is considered a marital status (even though it is not a marriage), a person who has joined with another in a civil union may no longer honestly state he or she is single on insurance and tax forms, the booklet explains. Those in the military may trigger the “don’t tell” provisions of the anti-gay military policy by entering into a civil union. A person may find that his or her government benefits are affected if the state counts the new spouse’s income in addition to his or her own income in determining eligibility for benefits.

There are also responsibilities in entering into a civil union. Once a couple has entered into a civil union, they can only legally exit the civil union with a divorce, and divorce is only available in Vermont to people who have lived there for a year. (Other states may allow civilly united couples to divorce as well). In a divorce, a court may hold the spouses responsible for each other’s debts and require them to divide their property equitably.

The booklet is optimistic and cautionary at once. The groups believe there will be some government entities and private parties who embrace and respect the commitment of civilly united couples and treat them like they are married. Others will discriminate against civil unions. But some of the media and other “experts” have gone too far in playing down the effect of civil unions in other states.

“When a couple enters a civil union, it is a binding legal commitment that confers upon their family a new legal status which is far more than symbolic. It’s not marriage, but it is a mirror-image of marriage which deserves legal respect by governments and private entities both in and out of Vermont,” Bonauto added.

The booklet also explores the effect of state and federal anti-gay, anti-marriage laws, how to get a license and how people can best protect their families in these times of rapid change.

The publication is available online at

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