Civil unions end at the New Jersey border


Staff Writer

While the civil union bill has given same-sex couples a plethora of additional rights and responsibilities, its effects stop short at the federal level, according to legal and financial experts.

Felice T. Londa, an attorney with the firm Londa and Londa in Elizabeth said that while allowing same-sex couples to form civil unions has been a definite gain, the benefits do not necessarily extend anywhere outside the state.

At the federal level, whether or not one’s same-sex union will be recognized by the relevant entities depends entirely upon whether the state in question has chosen to do so. If it does not, as has been the decision of many states, any benefits granted by the passage of the N.J. bill are null and void.

“The moment we cross our borders we are strangers to each other,” said Londa.

This is because of the Defense of Marriage Act passed in 1996 by the Clinton administration which explicitly says that no state is legally obligated to recognize a civil union. This makes traveling a potentially risky proposition for some same-sex couples.

Among the concerns that same-sex couples might have when traveling in a state that might not recognize their civil union, health care is one often repeated. Living wills, for example, might not be honored, denying partners in a civil union the same control over each other’s medical treatment as heterosexual married couples.

“We cross the border out of N.J. and we are fair game,” said Londa.

Another quirk of the bill is that people in a civil union may not be able to get it dissolved if they move out of state, as something that never existed cannot be destroyed.

According to Greg Seminick, a spokesperson for the IRS in New Jersey, couples in a civil union who file their federal income taxes will, for now, need to file as if they were single. This means that the federal government’s current policy does not recognize civil unions from any state and thus partners in a civil union are not applicable to a host of benefits and protections normally afforded to married couples.

For example, some employer health insurance benefits where federal law is involved might still not apply. The firm that represented the clients in the original Supreme Court case Lambda Legal has warned that entering a civil union may also result in a discharge from the armed forces, if one is currently serving. As well, things such as social security, certain veterans benefits, and immigration protections may not be recognized if one is a partner in a civil union.

This is a worrying fact for same-sex couples, many of whom feel that they should be awarded the same rights, at every level, couples in a heterosexual marriage have.

“There will be many parties to a civil union couple who will be faced with dramatic problems that they would not have if they were spouses recognized by the federal government,” said Londa.