Understanding Colorado’s New Civil Unions

(The following is a guest post from Erica Johnson, an estate planning attorney with Ambler Keenan in Denver, Colorado.)

On March 21st, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed into law legislation creating legal domestic Civil Unions in our state.

What is a Civil Union?

A civil union means a relationship established by two eligible persons, male or female, that entitles them to receive the benefits and protections of spouses, as well as gives them the responsibilities of spouses. The one right that is not included for Colorado Civil Unions is the right to file their state income taxes jointly.

If a same-sex couple entered into a marriage in another state, or have established a substantially similar legal relationship in another jurisdiction, they will be considered to be in a civil union in Colorado. However, this does not mean that another state has to recognize a Colorado civil union.

What rights will you get if you enter into a Civil Union in Colorado?

Some financial and medical rights include:

  • Right to designate a party to a civil union as a beneficiary under the state public employee’s retirement system
  • Right to group benefit plans for state employees
  • Survivor benefits under local government firefighter/police pensions
  • Right to be designated as a beneficiary of a Trust
  • Right to get health insurance from your partner’s employer if they offer such benefits to spouses
  • Right to be a beneficiary in life insurance, retirement, and/or pension plans
  • Right to visitation in the hospital, nursing home, hospice, etc.
  • Right to initiate nursing home complaints
  • Right to be an ‘interested party’ for determining a medical proxy decision maker
  • Right to challenge a Living Will
  • Right to make anatomical gifts

Parties to a civil union will also have the right for the partner to be treated as a family member/spouse under the Colorado Employment Security Act under certain circumstances. A few other rights parties will gain are:

  • Right to acquire, hold, or transfer real or personal property as Joint Tenant or Tenant in Common.
  • Priority for appointment as Conservator, Guardian, and/or Personal Representative
  • Right to apply for compensation as a relative of a victim under the Colorado Crime Victim Compensation Act
  • Right to receive restitution
  • Right to inherit through intestate (no will or trust left) succession
  • Right to direct disposition of last remains
  • Right to have standing to receive benefits under Workers’ Compensation Act
  • Right to have standing to sue for wrongful death
  • Right to apply for emergency or involuntary commitment of a party to a civil union

Although many rights are granted when entering into a civil union, many things will take further action to be protected.

HIPAA in not affected because it is federal. Parties will still need a HIPAA medical records release and will also need a Healthcare Power of Attorney. This is not a right automatically afforded to partners in a civil union. Parties must name a partner specifically in this document to make medical decisions and to be recognized out-of-state.

A partner in a civil union does not have the legal right to make financial decisions for their partner. A General Durable Power of Attorney is still necessary to convey this power.

What Federal and State rights are NOT affected by entering into a Civil Union in Colorado?

  • No social security spousal benefits
  • No unlimited estate tax transfer
  • No unlimited gifting between partners
  • Military benefits
  • ERISA – governs certain retirement accounts
  • COBRA – governs health insurance coverage
  • Anything else federal – i.e. Medicare
  • Medicaid is not clear yet as it is both a state and federal agency
  • No right to file tax returns jointly, even state returns

I know many are excited about the new civil unions laws. Please educate yourselves first, and take a moment to stop and think of the pros and cons. Thank you.

Reminder: I am only licensed to practice law in the state of Colorado. The information contained in this article is not intended to be legal advice, and should not be relied upon as legal advice, Information is provided for educational purposes only. You can learn more about Civil Unions via my Webinar at www.ambler-keenan.com. Look at the Resources, Consumer Resources section. 

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