I recently participated in a panel discussion about the new civil union law that became effective on June 1, 2011. As a prototypical lawyer, in my mind I have completely and narrowly focused on the legal implications of the new legislation. Granted, my oversight of other possible effects was somewhat excusable. After all, the new law has catapulted Illinois into a new and exciting realm of recognition of the legal rights of same-gender couples, and talking about them was exactly the reason why I was on the panel. And there are so many new rights. To be precise, as cited by Equality Illinois, an organization dedicated to promoting equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons in Illinois, same-gender couples have gained an estimated 650 new rights on the state level.
As far as the basics go, the law endeavors to provide exactly the same rights and impose the same obligations for civil union partners at the state level as were already in existence for spouses in a marriage. Some of those more notable rights pertain to estate planning and family law.
Prior to enactment of the law, if no estate planning documents were prepared and a partner in a same-gender couple suddenly perished, the remaining living partner was often left in dire straits. The partner would have essentially no recognized legal rights. He would not inherit anything under Illinois intestacy laws since the survivor had no legal relationship to the deceased. Long lost siblings or parents to whom the deceased may not have spoken for years would take before a partner who had lived with the deceased for 20 years. Siblings and parents would also take priority in the making of health care decisions if a person suddenly lost the capacity to make his or her own decisions and a health care power of attorney was not drafted to designate his or her partner as the decision-making agent. Civil union partners have gained the important rights to enter into prenuptial agreements and the same rights in dissolution of unions.
What I entirely diminished in significance, an oversight that became glaringly obvious when the a psychiatrist took the panel, was the range of emotional effects that this law will have on the LGBT community here on out. To many, it was an obviously incredibly joyous moment—a moment when your relationship was recognized by the world, when the outside community agreed that there is really something special to your relationship and that is it worth that kind of commitment and acknowledgement. However, there were numerous other effects that never fully occurred to me. The psychological effect of the availability of the option of legalized union and the hesitation before entering into such an overwhelming commitment is an issue that came to the forefront. After all, the new law has bestowed obligations as well as rights. Partners become financially responsible for their mates and their mates’ liabilities to the same extent that spouses do in marriage. If “till death do us” part does not materialize into reality and a dissolution of union is necessary, partners will have to face possibility of having to make support payments, significantly share their estate, and face potential custody battles.
Lost to me amidst the fight to obtain equal rights for every person, it suddenly occurred to me that the LGBT community is now faced with the same questions that heterosexual couples have been grappling with for centuries in one form or another—having to make an unequivocal proclamation of one’s commitment for the rest of their lives that this is the one person for him or her and associated issues. How do you bring it up to your partner that you may want him to sign a prenuptial agreement? How do you bring it up to your partner that you will be one unit and you would like him to be financially responsible? How do you bring up the fact that you might not be completely ready to enter that big of a commitment or that you are having any doubts? What if you have been with your partner for 20 years and have always assumed that you would be married if you were allowed that privilege and later find out that your life-long partner is hesitating?
LGBT community has many new issues and decisions to face, but having the opportunity to face those choices is unquestionably a welcome change. ■