Domestic Partnership Benefits

Learn about the benefits of domestic partnership -- and whether they may be available to you.

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Domestic partnerships were born in the early 1980s, when lesbian and gay activists sought recognition of their relationships and new definitions of family. Advocates for domestic partner rights pointed out that an estimated 10% of American families comprise a working husband, a stay-at-home wife, and children; however, our legal and social systems still provided benefits and protections based on that model. Presented with these arguments, some local governments created domestic partnership laws.

A Brief History of Domestic Partnerships

In 1982, the Village Voice newspaper became the first private company to offer its employees domestic partnership benefits. The City of Berkeley was the first municipality to do so in 1984. In 1995, Vermont became the first state to extend domestic partnership benefits to its public employees. In 1997, Hawaii became the first state to extend domestic partnership benefits to all same-sex couples throughout the state. Now many states offer domestic partnership benefits to state employees, while a handful of other states offer domestic partnership registration to same-sex couples who want the same rights and responsibilities of married couples. To stay abreast of current developments in same-sex marriage, civil unions, and domestic partnerships, read Nolo's article Same-Sex Marriage: Developments in the Law.

What Are Domestic Partnerships?

Domestic partners are unmarried couples, of the same or opposite sex, who live together and seek economic and noneconomic benefits comparable to those granted their married counterparts.

In California, D.C., Nevada, Oregon, and Washington state, domestic partnership status is offered and regulated by the state and grants some or all of the rights and responsibilities of marriage. Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois and New Jersey do the same, but call it civil unions instead of domestic partnership. Wisconsin offers some statewide spousal rights, but more limited than the aforementioned states.

Some of these states limit domestic partnership registration to same-sex couples, though some also include opposite-sex couples in which one partner is 62 or older. In other places, domestic partnership benefits are offered by smaller governmental entities or businesses and are more limited. In either case, benefits can include:

  • health, dental, and vision insurance
  • sick and bereavement leave
  • accident and life insurance
  • death benefits
  • parental leave (for a child you coparent)
  • housing rights and tuition reduction (at universities), and
  • use of recreational facilities.

When a state, municipality, county, organization, private company, university, or college considers providing domestic partnership benefits, it must address several important issues:

  • Who qualifies as a domestic partner -- should heterosexual couples be covered as well as same-sex couples?
  • How will an employer identify the employee's domestic partner -- by registration?
  • Must the couple be together a minimum number of years?
  • Must the couple live together?
  • Must they share expenses?
  • Must they be financially responsible for each other? (Note that even though most domestic partnership applications ask you to state that you are financially responsible for each other's needs, these applications are generally not considered binding contracts of support.)
  • How does a couple terminate their domestic partnership?

Finding Out What Benefits Are Offered in Your State

Today, a number of states and hundreds of municipalities, counties, private companies, organizations, colleges, and universities offer domestic partnership benefits. The complete list of institutions is extensive; the benefits offered by each is not, however. In some cases, all that is offered is bereavement or sick leave. In other situations, the benefits offered are comprehensive -- but also costly. Often, either the employee foots the bill for his or her partner or the company pays (when it also pays for spouses), but the employee must pay taxes on the benefits. This is because the IRS considers benefits awarded to an unmarried partner as taxable compensation.

For a list of states, municipalities, and other entities offering domestic partnership benefits, as well as legal updates affecting this issue, visit the domestic partnership section of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education website at www.lambdalegal.org. Another excellent source of information on domestic partnership benefits is the Human Rights Campaign's WorkNet website at www.hrc.org/worknet. For more information on private companies that offer domestic partnership benefits, you can visit the Alternatives to Marriage website at www.unmarried.org.

For more information about domestic partnership for same-sex couples, get the  Legal Guide for Lesbian & Gay Couples, by Denis Clifford, Frederick Hertz, and Emily Doskow (Nolo).

Updated by: , Attorney

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