On Monday, Jan. 31, 2011, Illinois became the sixth state to legalize civil unions after Governor Pat Quinn signed the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act (the “Act”), which will take effect on June 1, 2011. California, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington have already passed similar civil union laws. Although Illinois law will continue to limit the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman, the Act extends the “protections and benefits” enjoyed by married spouses in Illinois to same-sex and opposite-sex couples who are at least 18 years of age, have obtained a valid license from the County Clerk, and who have had their union properly officiated pursuant to the Act.

Under the Act, couples who enter into civil unions in Illinois will have the same obligations, responsibilities, protections and benefits as are recognized or given by Illinois law to spouses. This includes such things as leave rights and benefits governed by state law, visitation, adoption and parental rights, inheritance rights, the power to make medical decisions for loved ones, and in the event of death, the right to dispose of a loved one’s remains. The Act further provides that same-sex and opposite-sex marriages, civil unions, or substantially similar legal relationships entered into in another state or jurisdiction will be recognized in Illinois.

Since the Act contains many exceptions and requirements, Illinois employers should consult with counsel before the Act takes effect on June 1, 2011 to review their employee benefit plans, handbooks and other documents to determine if their plans and policies must be amended or extended to comply with the Act. Employers will need to determine the effect of the Act on their federally regulated benefits (such as 401(k) plans or self-insured health plans under ERISA) and consider whether they would like to provide parallel benefits to civil union couples.