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Estonia: Family Relations Extended Beyond Marriage

(Oct. 17, 2014) On October 9, 2014, the Riigikogu (Estonian legislature) passed the Cohabitation Act, which was signed into law by the President of Estonia on the same day. The law will enter into force in 2016, after the required implementing legislation is adopted. (Press Release, Parliament of Estonia, Riigikogu Approves Cohabitation Act (Oct. 9, 2014).)

According to the Cohabitation Act, people living in non-marital cohabitation will be recognized as couples, and their rights and mutual legal relations, as well as legal relations with third persons including adopted children, will be regulated following the registration of the couple’s civil relationship. As stated in a press release issued by the Riigikogu on the new legislation, “[t]he scope of application of the Act covers the procedure for entering into a cohabitation agreement, the rights and responsibilities of registered civil partners, and the bases for terminating the cohabitation agreement.” (Id.) A government registry for cohabitation partnerships will be established, and cohabitation agreements will be registered after having been notarized. (Id.) The Act does not include provisions on judicial proceedings and the right of succession, because these issues are addressed by current civil and civil procedural legislation that will apply to registered cohabitating couples upon their registration. (Id.)

While the Estonian Family Law Act, which defines marriage as a union of one man and one woman, remains in force (Family Law Act of 2009, §1(1), RIIGI TEATAJA [official gazette] 2009, No. 60, Item 395), the newly passed Cohabitation Act is gender neutral, thus extending legal recognition to all registered couples regardless of their sex. This makes Estonia the first former Soviet republic to legally recognize same-sex relationships. (Estonia Allowed Same-Sex Marriages [in Russian], RADIO FREE EUROPE/RADIO LIBERTY (Oct. 9, 2014).) In regard to the rights of same-sex couples, the Act allows registered cohabitating couples to adopt the children of their partners; however, the Act is silent about their right to adopt other children. (Id.)

After signing the Act, the President of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, said that it will establish “equal treatment of all people.” He added that Estonia is too small to survive discrimination by its citizens against each other. (Parliament Passes Cohabitation Act, President Proclaims It, ESTONIAN PUBLIC BROADCASTING (Oct. 9, 2014).) The Act was passed by 40 votes of the members of the ruling party, with 38 MPs against, 13 absent, and 10 abstaining. The opposition Conservative People’s Party had suggested bringing this Act to a popular referendum, citing opinion polls which showed that a majority of the population opposed its passage. (Id.)