by Todd A. Solomon and Brett R. Johnson
The Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act, which legalizes civil unions for same-sex and opposite-sex partners, takes effect on June 1, 2011. The law entitles civil union partners to all of the legal rights and obligations that opposite-sex spouses have under Illinois state law by requiring that a party to a civil union be included in any use of the terms “spouse,” “family,” “immediate family,” “dependent,” “next of kin” or other terms that denote a spousal relationship throughout Illinois law. Illinois will recognize as a civil union any same-sex marriage, civil union or substantially similar legal relationship entered into in other states.
The application of the Illinois law is complicated by the intersection of federal and state law. The federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) continues to define a “spouse” as a husband or wife of the opposite sex. A civil union in Illinois will not, therefore, be a “marriage” under DOMA. As a result of DOMA, parties to an Illinois civil union will not be entitled to federal law benefits applicable to opposite-sex spouses (e.g., qualified joint and survivor annuity (QJSA) and qualified pre-retirement survivor annuity (QPSA) benefits under tax qualified retirement plans, COBRA coverage, etc.). Note, however, that on March 16, 2011, both the U.S. House and Senate introduced legislation to repeal DOMA (The Respect for Marriage Act of 2011), and to tie federal law marital status to an individual’s marital status in the State where the individual entered into the marriage. The Respect for Marriage Act bills currently rest with the Judiciary Committees of the House and Senate, and the next step for each (e.g., Committee vote, hearings, Senate and/or House floor vote) is unclear.
Because the new Illinois civil union law may impact areas such as employee benefit plans, employer leave policies (including the Illinois Family Military Leave Act) and any other employer-provided benefits covering spouses, employers should ensure such programs are in compliance with the June 1, 2011 law change. More information on the employee benefit plan implications of the legalization of civil unions in Illinois can be found here, while the impact on Religious Organizations benefits is discussed here.