The recently enacted Illinois law recognizing civil unions has implications for all Illinois employers. The law becomes effective June 1, 2011. Before that date, employers should review and update their policies and employee benefit programs that may be affected by the law. This is true for both employers that provide domestic partner benefits and those that do not.
The Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act ( the “Civil Union Act”) allows same-sex and opposite-sex couples to enter into a new form of legal relationship called a “civil union.” Under the Act, persons entering into a civil union are entitled to the same legal protections, benefits, obligations and responsibilities as spouses under Illinois law. The law provides a process for establishing a civil union and for dissolving one.
The Civil Union Act also contains a reciprocity provision under which Illinois will recognize as a civil union any same-sex marriage, civil union or other substantially similar legal relationship (other than a common law marriage) that was legally entered into in another jurisdiction. Currently, five states (Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont) and the District of Columbia, as well as a number of foreign countries (including Canada) permit same-sex couples to marry. Other states (including Oregon, Nevada, New Jersey and Washington) have laws similar to the new Illinois Civil Union Act recognizing civil unions or domestic partnerships. Still other states (including Colorado, Maine, Maryland and Wisconsin) accord more limited legal recognition to such relationships.
Complicating matters, the federal Defense of Marriage Act provides that, for purposes of federal law, “the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.” So, while civil union partners generally are to be treated the same as spouses under Illinois law once the Civil Union Act becomes effective later this year, it appears that they will not have the same rights or status as spouses under federal law.
Of course, employers operating in Illinois are subject to both Illinois and federal law. Certain programs maintained by private-sector employers, such as bereavement leave, are governed exclusively by state law; others, such as retirement plans and flexible spending accounts, exclusively by federal law; and still others, such as insured health benefits plans (but not self-insured plans), by both federal and state law. Unfortunately, this creates significant complexity for employers.
Illinois employers that currently offer domestic partner benefits should review their domestic partner benefit program in light of the Civil Union Act. For example, the definition of “domestic partner” in the domestic partner benefits policy and the applicable benefit program documents and leave of absence and other policies may need to be revised to specifically encompass civil union partners. In addition, consideration should be given to whether an affidavit attesting to the existence of a domestic partnership will continue to be regarded as sufficient, or if Illinois employees should be required to formalize the relationship as a civil union in order to receive domestic partner benefits.
Illinois employers that do not offer domestic partner benefits will need to review their benefit plans and leave of absence and other human resources policies that involve spouses of employees to determine the impact of the Civil Union Act. For example, an employer with medical or dental insurance funded through a group insurance policy issued in Illinois will find that civil union partners will be eligible for coverage on the same terms as spouses beginning June 1, 2011, even though the employer may not want to provide such benefits.© 2013 Vedder Price