(CNN) -- 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. People in same-sex unions will also be able to extend health benefits to their partners, following the same rules applied to heterosexual couples.
To qualify as a "stable union," same-sex couples can register with an official office or prove it the same way some heterosexual couples do -- by having a bank account together or living at the same address.
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.
Judges will continue to decide on the rights of same-sex couples to adopt.
Cleber Vicente, project coordinator for the Rainbow Group in Rio de Janeiro, called the decision "a historic achievement," the state-run Agencia Brasil reported.
"There is something to celebrate this result," he said. "It is a struggle that stretches for over 15 years."
Some gay rights groups have encountered strong resistance in parts of Latin America, where the influential Roman Catholic Church often opposes measures allowing same sex-unions or adoption by same-sex couples.
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.
Brazil's high court ruling came in response to two lawsuits -- one filed by the Rio de Janeiro state government in 2008 and another in 2009 by the Public Ministry, a group of prosecutors that is part of the federal government but independent from its executive, legislative and judicial branches.
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.