Registering as domestic partners is a quick and easy way for two unmarried adults who are living together to establish their relationship on public record. The primary reason people register as domestic partners is to have the same access to employer, insurance, and discount benefits, such as joint-memberships, granted their married counterparts.
In cities that recognize family units outside of marriage, domestic partnership usually allows partners basic visitation rights in jails and hospitals (although it may not entitle you to make health-care decisions, funeral arrangements, or lay any claim on the estate of your partner) and provides proof to employers that offer benefits. Domestic partnership registration began in the early 1980s when same-sex couples sought recognition of their relationships, but in many cities it now encompasses opposite-sex couples as well.
It is not enough to declare that you are in a committed relationship, though. Most organizations want something verifiable and concrete to prevent potential fraud. These include employers who are willing to offer "soft" benefits -- sick or bereavement leave to care for a partner or a partner's children, use of employer facilities, and other benefits the employer has control over -- as well as "hard" benefits of access to health, dental and vision insurance. That is provided the insurance carrier recognizes domestic partner relationships.
Partners Task Force for Gay and Lesbian Couples provides updated lists of private employers, colleges and private schools, governments, unions, and insurance providers that provide domestic partner benefits.
What are the drawbacks?Unlike insurance benefits granted to married individuals, contributions made for employees who elect to participate in the Domestic Partner benefits plan are considered taxable income by the federal government -- unless those receiving benefits meet the definition of "dependant" under the Internal Revenue Code (receiving half of his/her support from the taxpayer).
Domestic partnerships also differ from legal marriage since benefits are not portable. There is no recognition outside the city, state or county which offers the status, and insurance benefits may be lost if the employee changes jobs. Also, since there is not an extensive legal history with domestic partnership regulations, and most couples do not establish wills, powers of attorney, etc., the domestic partner affidavits could be viewed as a de facto agreement by the courts, potentially making partners financially responsible for each other's support and debts. Some attorneys have questioned the wisdom of registering because the financial responsibilities incurred could outweigh the benefits.
Nolo Press has information on domestic partnership benefits and other resources available. A chapter from their book A Legal Guide for Lesbian and Gay Couples is available from Court TV's Legal Cafe. Partners also provides tax information and summaries of relevant court cases.
If you are looking to establish legal rights in your partnership, registering as domestic partners is not enough. There are other legal documents that are necessary, which are examined in greater detail on the Partners site, as well as the site for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. These legal documents include:
- Living Together Agreement
- Power of Attorney for Health Care
- Power of Attorney for Finances
- Hospital Visitation Authorization
- Living Wills or Directive to Physicians
- Living (Revocable) Trusts
- Legal Precautions for Partners who Parent
Are you in a domestic partnership?The first thing you need to do is determine if you qualify as domestic partners in your area. Since domestic partnership regulations vary by city, your City Clerk's office is a good place to start. Partners Task Force for Gay and Lesbian Couples also provides a list of cities that provide registration.
Generally, in order to register as domestic partners:
- You must be at least 18 years old;
- Neither partner may be married to, or the domestic partner of anyone else;
- You must reside together, and intend to do so permanently;
- You must not be so closely related by blood (or marriage) as to bar marriage in the State;
- You must be mentally competent to consent to contract;
- You must reside in the city where domestic partnership is offered, or one partner must be employed by the city;
- You have mutually agreed to be responsible for each other's common welfare, to be jointly responsible for each other's basic living expenses.
Other typical, though not standard requirements include:
- You must be in an exclusive, committed relationship that has existed for some period (ranges from 6 to 12 months);
- Consent of either person to the domestic partnership can not have been obtained by force, duress, or fraud;
- You have not been part of a domestic partnership or marriage within a certain number of days prior (usually matches the state's waiting period between divorce and remarriage, if any).
After establishing that you are in a domestic partnership, and that your city recognizes it, the registration process is simple. There is usually an application involved, which you can get from your City or County Clerk's office. Both partners must appear in person with proof of identity and residence, or employment, in that city. There's a registration fee ($25 to $75) and an Affidavit of Domestic Partnership to be signed in front of someone -- either the Clerk or a Notary. The Affidavit states that you qualify, and provides the terms under which you must notify the Clerk's office if the domestic partnership ends. You'll receive a copy of your domestic partnership certificate and, in some places, laminated wallet cards.
If you don't want (or can't get) a wedding band, that laminated wallet card might just do the trick.