Passage of the Illinois civil union act deserves celebration. It is society’s acknowledgment that the commitment of a lesbian or gay couple to a shared life is valuable and deserves the support of the vast legal infrastructure designed to treat the partners as a single economic unit, for their mutual benefit and that of society as a whole.

The new benefits are numerous. The partners may take each other’s names, enjoy insurance coverage available to spouses under group plans and expect discounts on life and long-term care insurance, and own the family home in a way that protects it from the creditors of one partner.

Partners who share a home with children will no longer run afoul of ordinances that limit the number of “unrelated persons” living together.

Partners who form a civil union may make health care decisions for an incapacitated partner, and decide about funeral, burial and organ donations for a partner who has died. The surviving partner will enjoy the inheritance rights formerly reserved for spouses, and succeed to the spousal pension.

If the partners separate before death, they may look to well-established divorce laws to guide the division of property and allocation of income to support the partner with greater financial need.

Yet the celebratory articles that describe the civil union law too often suggest that the automatic benefits of the law express the couple’s intentions. This is no truer for domestic partners than for married couples.

Partners to a civil union will want to alter the automatic consequences of the inheritance laws if, for example, they want to provide fairly for children born before the civil union, just as in any second marriage situation.

And long-term partners who have already combined their finances will want to consider signing a pre-union agreement that sets rules for dividing income and assets in case the union is dissolved, just as married people do before marriage.

Before applying for civil union, domestic partners will also want to consider the financial responsibilities: Each becomes financially accountable for the basic needs of the other, and the assets of one may be counted as available to the other.

A civil union may disqualify a partner from receiving government medical and nursing home benefits, or limit the eligibility of a partner or child for education grants. A civil union may limit the property owner’s right to sell a home. And a civil union will not yield the benefits available to married people under federal law, including important Social Security and Medicare benefits.

The full enjoyment of the privileges of civil union, and the full assumption of the responsibilities, will require employers, public servants, the courts, lawyers, financial professionals and, centrally, the couples themselves, to learn how the civil union act will affect them and their relationship.

There’s a lot to learn, but we have until July 2011, when the civil union act goes into effect.

Angelika Kuehn is an Oak Park lawyer. One focus of her practice for the last 20 years has been estate planning and administration for domestic partners.

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