Effect of Colorado Civil Unions Act on Employers

On March 12, the Colorado House of Representatives passed Senate Bill 13-011, the Colorado Civil Unions Act, and sent it on to Gov. Hickenlooper for signature. Gov. Hickenlooper is expected to sign the bill later this month. The bill becomes law May 1.

Same-sex couples cannot marry in Colorado because of a constitutional amendment passed in 2006 that defines a valid marriage as between one man and one woman. This amendment is similar to California’s Proposition 8, which is now under debate by the U.S. Supreme Court. On March 26, the Court will hear arguments in Hollingsworth v. Perry to determine the constitutionality of California’s ban. Should it be found unconstitutional, Colorado’s and similar state amendments and statutes and the federal Defense of Marriage Act may be affected.

As this debates moves forward, employers in Colorado should prepare to adjust their benefits plans and revise human resources policies and practices in anticipation of the new law. The Act gives partners in civil unions the same rights, protections, duties, and obligations afforded to spouses. This may include: coverage under life and health insurance, eligibility for family leave benefits, protections for adoption of a child, spousal rights to unemployment benefits, survivor benefits under workers’ compensation, and protections against discrimination based on spousal status. For state and local governments, it means insurance of partners under the state’s group benefit plans, designation of partners as beneficiaries under PERA, and survivor benefits under local government firefighter and police pensions.

Partners in a civil union in Colorado will have to go through the same dissolution and legal separation processes as married couples. The Act also discusses designated beneficiary agreements. And, it may result in different federal and state tax treatment.