Domestic Partnerships

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

By , Attorney

On June 26, 2015, the United States Supreme Court issued a historic decision legalizing same-sex marriage, and for many couples, it was a life-changing day filled with emotion. Now, every state must grant and recognize same-sex marriages.

One consequence of the historic ruling is that some states have eliminated domestic partnership benefits. This article will help you understand the basics of domestic partnership and whether it's available in your state.

What Is a Domestic Partnership?

Domestic partnerships date back to the early 1980's when lesbian and gay activist groups sought recognition of their relationships and a new definition of family. Because same-sex marriage was unavailable, some groups advocated for a system which provided benefits similar to those conferred by marriage.

Vermont was the first state to extend domestic partnership benefits to all same-sex couples in the state, and today, a few states continue to follow Vermont's lead.

There are no federal guidelines for domestic partnerships—meaning the federal government doesn't recognize these relationships. Each state defines the partnerships differently. In most states that continue to offer it, a domestic partnership involves committed, unmarried couples, same or opposite sex, in a relationship that is like a marriage. Most domestic partners share a residence, finances, and may even raise children together as unmarried partners.

How to Register a Domestic Partnership?

Depending on where you live, you can establish your domestic partnership by registering with your employer, local government, and/or the state. 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.

What Are the Benefits of a Domestic Partnership?

Domestic partnership benefits vary by state. The most common benefits that you may 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.

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. Domestic partnership rules and regulations are continually evolving and changing, so it's important to check with a local attorney for the most up-to-date information about benefits available in your state.

In California, Connecticut, District of Columbia (D.C.), Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington State, domestic partnership status is still available to couples and regulated by the state government. The list of available benefits varies, but most offer some or all the same rights and responsibilities as marriage.

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. Other states, like Colorado, Hawaii, and Illinois continue to allow civil unions, which offer almost all the benefits of marriage.

In some states, like Michigan, couples will find domestic partnership registration and benefits in some municipalities, counties, and organizations, but not statewide. For example, the state of Michigan doesn't recognize domestic partnerships, but if you live in the cities of Ann Arbor, Detroit, East Lansing, or Kalamazoo, you can register for a domestic partnership if you're at least 18 years old, not already married, not related by blood to your partner, and in a relationship of mutual support, caring, and commitment.

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 may 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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