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Domestic partnerships were created some 40 years ago as a way for same-sex couples to gain certain employment-related benefits that were otherwise available only to married couples. While some states and municipalities today allow couples to register as domestic partners, this trend has waned since the landmark Supreme Court Obergefell v. Hodges decision in 2015 determined that same-sex couples have a fundamental right to marry.
“This [registering as a domestic partnership] is not so common anymore, but is still possible in some states and local governments – counties or cities,” says Wendy D. Manning, distinguished professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University. “Lots of employers removed these (benefit) options once Obergefell went through and marriage to same-sex couples became legal across the nation.”
Today in many jurisdictions, domestic partnerships are allowed for couples of the same gender or different genders who don’t want to marry but still would like to be eligible for certain benefits. These benefits vary from state to state, and from one municipality to another, but may include:
Health and life insurance
Sick and family leave
In cities that recognize family units outside of marriage, domestic partnerships usually allow partners basic visitation rights in jails and hospitals. However, it may not entitle you to make health-care decisions, funeral arrangements, or lay any claim on the estate of your partner. Registering as domestic partners, though, provides proof to those employers that still offer benefits.
Most organizations want something verifiable to prevent potential fraud. These include employers willing to offer so-called “soft” benefits. These perks include 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. Employers that offer “hard” benefits, such as access to health, dental and vision insurance — assuming the insurance carrier recognizes domestic partner relationships — also want proof of a legal partnership.
“Some employers kept domestic partnerships as an option to appeal largely to different-sex cohabitors,” says Manning, who adds it’s a good option for cohabiting couples who don’t want to be locked into marriage.
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 and have their partner covered under their plan are considered taxable income by the federal government. However, any insurance premiums your employer contributes to your partner’s policy would not be taxed if your partner meets the definition of “dependent” under the Internal Revenue Code. To qualify as a dependent, your partner must receive more than half of his/her support from you, the taxpayer.
Domestic partnerships also differ from legal marriage since benefits are not portable from one employer to another. There is no recognition outside the city, state or county that offers the status, and insurance benefits may be lost if the employee changes jobs.
In addition, 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. As a result, some attorneys have questioned the wisdom of registering because the financial responsibilities incurred could outweigh the benefits.
Different rules for different places
Several states (California, Maine, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington) plus the District of Columbia formally recognize domestic partnerships, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, or NCSL. Hawaii uses a different term — “reciprocal beneficiaries” — rather than domestic partners.
California law had restricted domestic partnerships to same-sex partners or for couples older than age 62. On January 1, 2020, the rules changed, allowing different-sex couples of any age over 18 to form domestic partnerships.
In Nevada, domestic partners have the same rights, protections and benefits as married spouses and are both responsible for debts to third parties. Likewise, New Jersey confers to domestic partners “certain rights and benefits that are accorded to married couples,” including “visitation rights for a hospitalized domestic partner and the right to make medical or legal decisions for an incapacitated partner,” as well as certain tax benefits, according to the NCSL, which compiles civil unions and domestic partnership statutes nationwide.
Washington state allows domestic partnership arrangements among same-sex or different-sex partners, as well as among couples with at least one partner who is 62 years or older, who could lose part of their Social Security or pension benefits if they were to tie the nuptial knot.
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.
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.
To establish a domestic partnership in a city that recognizes it, the registration process is simple. There is usually an application to fill out 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 and a Domestic Partnership affidavit 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 in the event the domestic partnership ends.