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Domestic Partner Benefits

Domestic partnerships were created in the 1980s as same-sex couples struggled for legal rights and recognition of their relationships. In June 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional in the court case of Obergefell v. HodgesSame-sex couples were now free to marry.

Some cities, states, and private companies continue to offer domestic partnership benefits to cohabitating partners who wish not to marry but want to obtain certain work-related benefits. Typically domestic partner benefits are similar to those available to married spouses.

This article takes a current look at domestic partnerships in the U.S. in the 2020s.

What Is a Domestic Partnership?

Domestic partnerships (or civil unions) are designed to give unmarried partners in committed relationships some of the same economic and noneconomic benefits as a married couple.

Same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples can register with their city, state, or company as domestic partners. Domestic partner benefit plans often include:

  • Health benefits and dental benefits
  • Life insurance
  • Death benefits
  • Parental rights to dependent children or a domestic partner's child
  • Sick leave and family medical leave
  • Visitation rights in healthcare facilities
  • Housing rights
  • Tax treatment at the state level (the IRS does not recognize domestic partnerships)

Some employers offer domestic partner coverage even if the state doesn't recognize that relationship. For more information about such benefits, contact your employer's human resources department.

Why Choose Domestic Partnership?

People have their reasons for choosing not to get married.

  • The couple may be concerned about the tax implications of marriage. They want to avoid the “marriage tax penalty" which could force them into a higher tax bracket.
  • A person may have been married before and doesn't want to do that again.
  • A partner may be concerned about qualifying for government benefits.
  • Partners may feel marriage is a religious ceremony and they are not religious.
  • A person may disapprove of marriage as a historically patriarchal institution.

Creating Domestic Partner Employee Benefits Plans

When determining whether and how to offer a domestic partner benefits plan, the public or private entity must consider:

  • What are the qualifications for becoming a domestic partner?
  • How will domestic partners register their relationship?
  • Can couples register for domestic partnerships if marriage is available to them?
  • Is there a set time that a couple must be together before they can register?
  • Is there a set time that a couple must live together?
  • Will the partners be financially responsible for each other?
  • Who are eligible dependents?
  • How does a domestic partnership end?
  • Do domestic partnerships violate any existing state laws or constitutional requirements?

The State of California has a Domestic Partnership registry, but specific counties and municipalities in the state also register domestic partners.

Domestic Partnerships and Federal Law

Many people consider domestic partnerships to be the equivalent of marriage, but this is not the case. Even if a state affords domestic partners the exact same rights and benefits, the federal government does not recognize domestic partners in the same way. This applies to federal tax treatment as well as eligibility for federally run benefit programs and health coverage.

Stay Up-to-Date on Changing Laws

Laws change over time. State human rights and civil rights laws are in flux in some states. It can be challenging to keep track of proposed and enacted legal changes. The following websites can help you keep track of domestic partnership laws:

Learn More About Domestic Partner Benefits from an Attorney

Whether domestic partnerships are available to you will depend on where you live and your employer. To learn more, contact an experienced family law attorney in your area.

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