Domestic Partnerships

Depending on your goals for your relationship, entering into a domestic partnership might be a better option than getting married.

By , Attorney · Cooley Law School
Updated by Ann O’Connell, Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law

Domestic partnerships arose in large part due to a desire to formally recognize same-sex relationships. Now that same-sex marriage is legal, the purpose of domestic partnerships has shifted, and some states have even eliminated domestic partnership benefits.

Here's a breakdown of the current status of domestic partnership in the United States, some information about the benefits of domestic partnerships, and how you might go about registering one if you decide it's right for you.

What Is a Domestic Partnership?

Like marriage, domestic partnership is a formal way of recognizing a relationship under state law. There's no national domestic partnership law—it's up to each individual state to decide whether to recognize them or to provide a formal domestic partnership framework.

In most states that offer domestic partnerships, the arrangement involves committed, unmarried couples, same or opposite sex, in a relationship that is like a marriage. Most domestic partners share a residence, finances, and might raise children together as unmarried partners.

What Are the Benefits of a Domestic Partnership?

Domestic partnership benefits vary by state. The most common benefits that you might receive include:

  • sick and bereavement leave
  • health, dental, and vision insurance
  • death benefits and inheritance rights
  • visitation rights in jails and hospitals
  • the power to make medical or financial decisions for a partner
  • accident and life insurance
  • housing rights, and
  • parental leave and adoption benefits.

Some employers offer benefits to employees in a domestic partnership even if the state doesn't recognize the relationship. For more information, you should contact your employer's human resources department.

Why a Domestic Partnership Might Be a Good Idea for Older Adults

Many older adults (age 62 and older) in committed relationships choose to remain unmarried—mostly because marriage could affect their financial situation. Depending on the circumstances and applicable laws, getting married could mean a senior:

  • loses the right collect a former spouse's military benefits, pension, or Social Security benefits
  • couldn't leave their estate in its entirety to a child or another person of their choosing (if their state has an elective share law)
  • might be responsible for paying for their spouse's medical care, or
  • is no longer eligible for income-based aid such as Medicaid.

In some states, entering into a domestic partnership is an attractive alternative, because it would allow a senior to avoid one or more of these potential downsides of marriage, but at the same time impart important benefits, such as the right to visit the partner in the hospital.

If you're a senior considering a domestic partnership in lieu of marriage, it's crucial to understand the pros and the cons of your state's domestic partnership laws. Some states' domestic partnerships closely resemble marriage, and might offer only limited benefits. A local family law attorney can help you navigate the state's laws to determine whether domestic partnership has any advantages over marriage for your situation.

What States Offer Domestic Partnerships?

After marriage equality became law, many states and employers stopped offering domestic partnerships. Some states, however, recognize that not all couples want to get married, so they still provide some benefits to committed couples.

Washington, D.C., and the following states offer domestic partnerships:

It's important to understand your state's specific requirements before you apply for a domestic partnership. For example, some states limit domestic partnership registration to same-sex couples, while others include opposite-sex couples if at least one partner is over the age of 62.

How to Register a Domestic Partnership

Depending on where you live, you can establish your domestic partnership by registering with your employer, local government, or the state. (You can find the links to each state's registration page in the section What States Offer Domestic Partnerships? above.)

Typically, you'll start by filling out an application and signing it in front of witnesses. You'll also visit a notary public who will verify both partners' identities with some form of state identification, like driver's licenses. When you complete your application, you will file it and pay a filing fee, which varies depending on where you live.

Today, several states and hundreds of municipalities, counties, private companies, colleges, and universities offer domestic partnership benefits.

How to Dissolve a Domestic Partnership

Just like entering into a domestic partnership, the procedure for ending a domestic partnership varies by state. In some states, it involves basic paperwork. For example, in Hawaii, ending a domestic partnership is as simple as filing a form declaring that the relationship is over; in Wisconsin, it's a matter of filing an application for termination.

In other states, the procedure for terminating a domestic partnership is more complicated. For example, in California, how you end a domestic partnership depends on the nature of your relationship. If you meet a list of requirements (such as not having been registered partners for more than five years and not having any children born during the partnership), you can terminate the partnership by filing a Notice of Termination of Domestic Partnership with the California Secretary of State. But if you don't meet the criteria for this simplified procedure, you'll have to petition a court to end your domestic partnership. If you go to court, you will have to address issues such as property division and child custody.

You often can find information about how to end a domestic partnership on the same website that outlines your state's registration procedures. Depending on the complexity of your state's procedures, you might be able to DIY the termination, or, alternatively, an experienced family law attorney can help you with the paperwork.

Beyond formally ending the partnership with the state, you might want to consider drafting a separation agreement that lays out the terms of how you are dividing shared property or accounting for custody of and support of any children of the relationship. A separation agreement might look very similar to a marital settlement agreement that you would draft in a divorce. An experienced family law attorney can help you work through the issues and draft a binding agreement.

Learn About Domestic Partnership Laws in Your State

Today, several states and hundreds of municipalities, counties, private companies, colleges, and universities offer domestic partnership benefits. While the complete list is extensive, the benefits provided by each are not. Some locations will only provide bereavement benefits to domestic partners. Others might offer the same rights as legally married couples.

For more information on what is available to you in your state, contact an experienced attorney near you. Some of the most common questions asked of attorneys regarding domestic partner benefits include:

  • Who qualifies as a domestic partner?
  • How will my employer identify my domestic partner?
  • Must we be in a relationship for a minimum number of years?
  • Do we need to reside in the same home and share expenses?
  • How do I terminate a valid domestic partnership?

For additional information, take a look at Nolo's Marriage and Domestic Partnership books and forms.

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