Civil Unions in Colorado

Effective May 1, 2013, Colorado is now one of several states in the United States that recognizes “civil unions.” Colorado’s civil union law allows two eligible persons to receive the same benefits and protections that married spouses have under Colorado law. A partner in a civil union is a person who has established a “civil union” under the Colorado civil union law. A civil union certificate is issued to the persons who have established a civil union. Civil union partners have almost all of the same rights and responsibilities as married persons under Colorado law. Divorce, annulment, custody and legal separation laws apply to civil unions.

The civil union laws apply to everyone, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. For example, a gay or lesbian couple (same sex) may choose to enter into a civil union. But a heterosexual (male-female) couple may also choose to enter into a civil union.

Who Can Enter Into A Civil Union

The parties to a civil union have to meet certain criteria including: (1) neither party is married to another person; (2) both parties are adults over the age of 18; and (3) the parties to the civil union can’t be a parent and child or a brother and sister or related as an aunt, uncle, niece or nephew.

Application Process for Civil Unions

Both parties have to complete an application. At least one of the parties has to appear before the County Clerk and Recorder and pay a fee . If the application is correct and the parties meet the civil union criteria, the Clerk will issue a civil union license and certificate. The license is only valid in Colorado for 35 days from the issuance date. If the license is not used within 35 days, it is void.

After the license is issued, the civil union may be certified by a judge of a court, by a district court magistrate, by a county court magistrate, by a retired judge of a court, by the parties to the civil union, or in accordance with any mode of recognition of a civil union by any religious denomination or Indian nation or tribe.

Within 63 days after the date on which the civil union is certified, the civil union certificate has to be completed and returned to the Clerk and Recorder. The County Clerk and Recorder will then “register” the civil union.

Clergy (for example, a priest, rabbi or minister) are not required to certify a civil union, if the certification would be a violation of the clergy person’s right to exercise freedom of religion.

Civil Union Rights in General

Parties to a civil union have all of the same rights, benefits, protections, duties, obligations, responsibilities, and other incidents under state law that are granted to or imposed upon married spouses, whether those rights, benefits, protections, duties, obligations, responsibilities, and other incidents derive from statute, administrative or court rule, policy, common law, or any other source of law.

Civil Union and Divorce, Legal Separation, Annulment and Custody

The breakup of a civil union is handled the same way as the breakup of a marriage. The law of domestic relations, including but not limited to declaration of invalidity, legal separation, dissolution (divorce), child custody, allocation of parental responsibilities, parenting time, child support, property division, maintenance, and award of attorney fees, applies to civil unions.

Civil Unions and Inheritance

Partners in a civil union are allowed to inherit assets the same way as a married couple. For example, if a partner in a civil union is not included in the other partner’s will, the surviving partner may have a right to elect against the will of the deceased partner and receive assets from the estate. If a partner in a civil union dies and has no other heirs and no will, the surviving partner will receive all of the deceased partner’s estate.

Civil Unions and Lawsuits

Partners in a civil union can make lawsuit claims that a married person can bring, based on harm that was done to the partner. For example, if a partner in a civil union is killed as a result of negligence, the surviving partner can sue the person who caused the death based on wrongful death. If a partner in a civil union is severely injured and can no longer provide care, comfort and a relationship in the same way as before, the uninjured partner can sue the person who caused the injury based on “loss of consortium.”

Civil Unions and Other Benefits

Partners in a civil union have the same property rights as married spouses. For example, if John owns a house that is jointly titled with Jim, and John dies, Jim will receive the house.

Partners in a civil union are treated as a family member or spouse for purposes of:

  • Unemployment benefits
  • Worker compensation benefits
  • Adoption law
  • The right to designate beneficiaries under PERA
  • Survivor benefits under local government firefighter and police pensions
  • Laws concerning the right to be informed of critical stages of the criminal justice process
  • Laws, policies and procedures concerning emergency and nonemergency medical care and treatment and hospital visitation
  • Laws or rules regarding the right to visit a partner in a jail, prison, correctional facility, hospital and/or mental health center
  • Medical treatment decisions
  • Decisions concerning remains of a deceased party
  • Laws relating to anatomical gifts
  • Family leave benefits
  • Public assistance benefits pursuant to state law
  • Laws relating to immunity from compelled testimony and evidentiary privileges
  • The right to apply for emergency or involuntary commitment of a party to a civil union
  • The homestead rights of a spouse
  • The ability to protect exempt property from attachment, execution, or garnishment
  • Insurance policies for life insurance, including the ability to cover a party to a civil union as a dependent

Civil Unions and Adopting Children

Partners in a civil union have rights and responsibilities with respect to the biological child of one of the parties, if the child is conceived during the term of the civil union, as if the parties were spouses subject to the provisions of adoption law. A person who is a partner in a civil union may adopt a child of the other partner in a stepparent adoption proceeding, and shall be considered a stepparent for the purpose of determining whether a child is available for adoption.

Civil Unions and Prenuptial and Postnuptial Agreements (Marital Agreements)

Partners in a civil union can enter into prenuptial and postnuptial agreements, with the same rights as persons who would be marrying each other or who are married to each other. For example, if Susan and Elizabeth want to enter into a civil union, but want to protect their existing assets in the event of a civil union divorce, they can negotiate and enter into a prenuptial civil union agreement.

Civil Unions in Other States

A civil union or substantially similar relationship between two persons that is legally created in another state or country shall be deemed a civil union for purposes of Colorado law.

Joint Income Tax Returns Prohibited

At this time, parties to a civil union cannot file joint income tax returns (federal or Colorado returns).

Conclusion

The civil union laws will be used, tested, challenged, enforced and modified over the course of history. At this time, unmarried persons in Colorado who meet the civil union criteria and enter into civil unions will be able to be afforded almost all of the same rights, duties and obligations that married persons have.

Gregg A. Greenstein is a shareholder in the law firm of Frascona, Joiner, Goodman and Greenstein, P.C., a Colorado law firm. His practice areas include Real Estate, Litigation, Family Law, Divorce, and Adoption. Contact Gregg Greenstein.

Disclaimer -- Content is general information only. Information is not provided as advice for a specific matter, nor does its publication create an attorney-client relationship. Laws vary from one state to another. For legal advice on a specific matter, consult an attorney.

GREGG A. GREENSTEIN