In February, 2012, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed a state Senate bill that would have legalized gay or same – sex marriage, contending that the issue is one that should be put to voters in a referendum. New Jersey does, however, have a civil union statute that allows gays to establish some level of a legally sanctioned relationship. The Governor has asserted that the civil union law provides equal benefits and opportunities to same sex couples, though not everyone agrees. This blog addresses how gay couples have actually been treated under the law.
State vs. Federal Laws
In general, the main area of difficulties that gay and lesbian couples face is through the interplay of state and federal law. Insurance is just one example of that interplay.
Under the New Jersey civil union statute, companies that purchase private health insurance for their employees must offer those benefits to same-sex couples. If, however, the health insurance benefits are self-funded, which more than half are, the companies can ignore the state law and choose to follow federal law, specifically the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. The DOMA defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and is consistently used by employers to deny coverage to gay couples. There also can be problems with COBRA coverage upon the dissolution of a civil union due to conflict of state and federal law.
Your Rights under the New Jersey Civil Union Law
The New Jersey civil union statute specifically grants parties to a civil union “all the same benefits, protections and responsibilities under the law, whether they derive from statute, administrative or court rule, public policy, common law or any other source of civil law, as are granted to spouses in a marriage.” The rights apply only to state rights. These include:
- Rights to the joint ownership of property
- Rights to employment benefits, such as health or disability insurance, as well as pension benefits
- Inheritance rights
- Rights to family and medical leave under state laws
- Rights to visitation in hospitals or medical care facilities
- The right not to be a witness against a domestic partner in a legal proceeding
- Rights to death benefits through a workers’ compensation claim if a domestic partner dies in the workplace
- The right to bring a wrongful death action if a domestic partner is killed because of the negligent or intentional act of another person
- The right to terminate the civil union, as well as rights to custody and visitation of children, child support, and equitable distribution of property of the civil union
The law also imposes on domestic partners any obligations or benefits relating to taxes imposed by the state of New Jersey, or by a municipality.
Again, however, whenever any aspect of the above is impacted by federal law, the rights cannot be guaranteed.