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Question of the Month ~ September 2016


Q. What alternatives to traditional marriage are recognized in the Midwestern states?

Three alternatives to traditional marriage are recognized in different parts of this region: domestic partnerships, civil unions and common-law marriages.
Domestic partnerships
Although similar to marriage, domestic partnerships are not recognized by the federal government. As a result, domestic partners are not eligible for the rights, responsibilities and benefits afforded to married couples under federal law, and these partnerships do not have to be recognized outside the jurisdiction in which they originated.
The Wisconsin State Legislature included language in its 2009 budget bill that allowed same-sex couples to register in a domestic partnership, granting them the ability to take family and medical leave, make end-of-life decisions, and have rights to hospital visitation. In all, that law provided same-sex couples with 43 state-level rights that previously had been limited to married couples. (It was passed six years prior to the U.S. Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry.)
Some states have restrictions on who may enter into a domestic partnership — only same-sex couples in Wisconsin, for example. In California and Washington, opposite-sex couples can enter into a domestic partnership only if one or both parties are over the age of 62.
In addition to Wisconsin’s state law, local jurisdictions in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio have legalized domestic partnerships.
Civil unions
Like domestic partnerships, civil unions grant all or some of the state-level rights as marriage, but are not recognized by the federal government. (A domestic-partnership law that provides comprehensive benefits is much like a civil union.)
In 2010, the Illinois General Assembly passed legislation (SB 1716) enabling all couples to enter into a civil union. This law provided the same rights, protections, obligations and responsibilities that married couples have. An Illinois law allowing for same-sex marriage took effect in 2014. However, the state has continued to recognize and certify new civil unions.
Common-law marriage
Unlike domestic partnerships and civil unions, common-law marriages do not require any registration or application. The requirements for a valid common-law marriage vary among the nine U.S. states that allow for them, including Iowa and Kansas.
In Iowa, the three elements of a common-law marriage are: 1) the present intent and agreement to be married; 2) continuous cohabitation; and 3) public declaration that the parties are husband and wife. Under Kansas law, the three requirements are: 1) capacity to marry; 2) a present marriage agreement; and 3) a public declaration of each other as husband and wife. Although a common-law marriage is less formal, couples in this arrangement are recognized by the federal government as “spouses” and are given all of the rights and job protections provided by the Family and Medical Leave Act.


Article written by Katelyn Tye, CSG Midwest policy analyst. Question of the Month highlights a research inquiry received by CSG Midwest.