Prior to the legalization of same sex marriage in 2015, New Jersey allowed same sex couples to enter into arrangements known as civil unions. Under a civil union, same sex couples have most of the same legal rights and protections as heterosexual couples. They can also dissolve their union in a manner similar to divorce. Since the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on marriage equality, civil unions have been put on the back burner. However, there are still couples throughout New Jersey who are joined in civil unions. In addition, there are heterosexual couples who have chosen to enter into civil unions rather than marriage for personal and financial reasons.
Since civil unions are still a legal arrangement in New Jersey, it's important to understand the laws that pertain to them. One of the most misunderstood areas of civil unions is dissolution. Confusion over this issue may stem from changes in the laws, beginning in 2007. Believe it or not, there was no provision for the dissolution of civil unions on grounds of irreconcilable differences prior to 2007. Thus, there are some people who still who believe that civil unions can only be dissolved on fault-based grounds. Fault grounds include all the same grounds as divorce: adultery, desertion for a period of 12 or more months; extreme cruelty; separation for 18 or more consecutive months; imprisonment of one party for 18 or more consecutive months, institutionalization of one party for mental illness for 24 or more consecutive months.
With the exception of voluntary separation, the rest of these grounds are serious accusations. It's not surprising that many partners would be hesitant to file for dissolution under these grounds. In addition, fault ground filings typically require more time and money to resolve compared to no-fault filings. The inequity between the rights of married couples versus couples in civil unions was challenged in the 2006 case of Lewis v. Harris. In its ruling, the New Jersey Supreme Court stated, “unequal dispensation of rights and benefits to committed same sex partners can no longer be tolerated under our State Constitution.” As a result, the New Jersey Legislature passed the New Jersey Civil Union Act, followed by a provision in the divorce statute to allow irreconcilable difference filings for civil unions. As a result, couples in either situation are able to dissolve their union without public accusations or prohibitive legal fees.
There are, however, other inequities that differentiate civil unions from marriage, which is why marriage equality is important to so many people. Still, there are perfectly valid reasons for choosing civil union over marriage. Deciding what's right for you requires a thorough understanding of your rights, as well as your personal and financial situation Consulting an experienced family law attorney can help you gain insight in these areas, along with related issues such as custody, alimony and property division. For more information on civil unions in New Jersey, please speak with the attorneys of Villani & DeLuca, P.C.