Illinois’ new civil-union law—which gives new rights to same-sex and opposite-sex couples—goes into effect on June 1. It says couples united in civil unions are “entitled to the same legal obligations, responsibilities, protections and benefits as are afforded or recognized by the law of Illinois to spouses….”
On its face, the law’s language makes civil unions the functional equivalent of marriage. For example, civil partners can make medical decisions on each other’s behalf, inherit property and share a nursing home room. But other aspects are murkier.
For Illinois employers, the big question is what to do when employees in civil unions demand that their partners be added to health insurance and other benefit plans. Should employers simply sign them up?
The answer depends on whether your health insurance plan is a true insurance plan covered by Illinois state law or a self-insured plan covered by the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). That’s because federal law doesn’t recognize civil unions, only marriages.
And what about? Because that law is also a federal one, most likely employees will not be able to request leave to care for a sick civil-union partner.
Also consider: Employers that already offer same-sex benefits on par with those of married couples may now have to extend those benefits to opposite-sex civil-union partners.
Advice: June 1 is right around the corner. Now is the time to decide whether to add civil-union partners to benefit plans and update your policies and handbook accordingly. Start the process by contacting your insurance broker and attorney.
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