Brazil's Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday that the nation should recognize same-sex unions.
The court voted 10-0 in favor of recognizing the unions. One justice abstained because he had spoken publicly in favor of same-sex unions when he was attorney general.
The court ruled that the same rights and rules that apply to "stable unions" of heterosexual couples will apply to same-sex couples, including the right to joint declaration of income tax, pension, inheritance and property sharing.
The ruling does not allow same-sex marriage, but gay rights activists hailed it as an important advance for same-sex couples.
Previously, decisions related to same-sex unions were left for judges to evaluate on a case-by-case basis.
Argentina became the first Latin American country to approve same-sex marriage in 2010. Mexico City approved same-sex marriage in 2009. And several other countries in the region have legalized civil unions.
Gilmar Mendes, a Supreme Court justice, told Agencia Brasil that the court has an obligation to respond to protect gay couples who are still victims of prejudice and violence.
"This legal limbo that (same-sex couples encounter) contributes to discrimination, even to the violent practices that have seen in the news. It is the duty of the state to protect and duty of the court to give that protection if, somehow, it was not intended by the legislature," he said.
According to preliminary results of the country's 2010 census, at least 60,000 homosexual couples live in Brazil.