Illinois Civil Unions are Almost here.

The AIDS Legal Council is excited about the recent passage of the Illinois Civil Union Act. Beginning in June of 2011 Illinois same-sex couples will be able to enter into legally-recognized civil unions “with all the obligations, responsibilities, protections, and benefits afforded or recognized by the law of Illinois to spouses.” Before entering into a civil union, it is important for low-income individuals to consider the impact their civil union may have on their public benefits.

Because the Civil Union Act is a state law, the changes will be primarily in state programs. But since it’s not always clear which programs are state and which are federal, this guide lists the main public benefits programs accessed by people with HIV and describes what effect, if any, the new law will have on them.

INCOME PROGRAMS

SOCIAL SECURITY — SSDI
This is the Social Security check you get because you have a long work history, and you are either disabled or over age 65. Your regular monthly SSDI check will not be affected by your being in a civil union, regardless of your partner’s income or assets .

SSDI also provides a “survivor’s benefit” to some surviving children and spouses. However, a federal law called the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, prohibits civil unions from being treated the same as marriages when it comes to federal benefits. So a widowed domestic partner could not receive SSDI survivor’s benefits. A child of one of the partners in a civil union could receive a survivor’s check only if he or she was the legal child, by birth or adoption, of the deceased or disabled partner.

SOCIAL SECURITY — SSI
This is the monthly Social Security check for people who do not have much work history but are disabled or over 65. Normally people who are married lose some of their SSI benefits. But since SSI is a federal program, DOMA says the people who run SSI can’t treat a civil union the same as a marriage. As a result, being in a civil union shouldn’t cause any change in your SSI benefit, so long as nothing else changes in the way your household and finances are set up.

SOCIAL SECURITY — EXTRA HELP
This is the benefit that helps pay for costs associated with the Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage. It’s a federal benefit, and because DOMA prohibits civil unions from being treated like marriages , your eligibility for Extra help should not be affect by your being in a civil union.

FOOD STAMPS
The Food Stamp program (now called the SNAP Program) was created by federal law, and is funded by federal money. The Food Stamp program considers “household income” to determine eligibility, and the program always considers the incomes of both spouses to determine the household income. But because DOMA prohibits same sex couples from being considered spouses , there will not be an automatic presumption that partners in a civil union are sharing household expenses.

HEALTH CARE PROGRAMS

MEDICARE
Medicare is a federal health insurance program for people over age 65 or who are disabled and receiving SSDI. Since Medicare is a federal program, not a state program, your Medicare benefits should remain unchanged if you enter into a civil union.

MEDICAID
Medicaid is created by federal law, but funded by both federal and state money. One part of Medicaid eligibility is “household income,” and for married couples both spouses’ incomes are always combined, even if only one spouse is applying for Medicaid. But because of DOMA, partners in a civil union can’t be considered “married” for the purposes of federal benefits. So your partner’s income should not be added to yours in order to calculate your household income.

If you are married, and you have a Medicaid spend-down, you can use your spouse’s medical bills to meet your spend-down. But if you are in a civil union, DOMA would not allow you to use your partner’s medical bills to meet spend-down.

Some states with domestic partnership laws have established entirely separate state-funded Medicaid programs for persons in Civil Unions to avoid conflicts between state and federal law.

ILLINOIS CARES RX
This program helps cover the costs of HIV medications for some people on Medicare. Illinois Cares Rx will consider your civil union to be just like a marriage. This means that Illinois Cares Rx will consider the combined income of you and your domestic partner. The annual income eligibility limit for married couples is $36,635. So if your income, added to your partner’s income, totals over $36,635 you will not be eligible for Illinois Cares Rx — even though your individual income may be low enough to make you eligible as a ‘single person.’ On the other hand, if your income is currently above the Illinois Cares Rx limits but you enter into a civil union with someone with little or no income, you may become eligible for Illinois Cares Rx.

ADAP
This program, administered by the Illinois Department of Public Health, provides free HIV medications for people who have no other way to pay for them. ADAP will consider your civil union to be just like a marriage. The annual income eligibility for a household of two is $70,000. This means that if the combined income of you and your partner exceeds $70,000, you will not be eligible for ADAP, even if your individual income may be low enough to make you eligible as a household of one. Again, this can work both ways. If your income is currently too high for ADAP, entering into a civil union with a partner with little or no income may make you eligible for ADAP.

These are the general rules. It’s always a good idea to consult with a legal expert about the particular facts of your situation. AIDS Legal Council staff is happy to consult with you, free of charge. You can reach us at 312-427-8990.

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