By Jade Yeban, J.D. | Legally reviewed by Aviana Cooper, Esq. | Last reviewed May 25, 2023
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Domestic partnerships were created in the 1980s. At the time, same-sex couples were struggling for legal rights and recognition as couples. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional in the court case of Obergefell v. Hodges. Now, same-sex couples are now free to marry.
Some cities, states, and private companies continue offering cohabitating partners domestic partnership benefits. These are couples who wish not to marry but want to get certain work-related benefits. Typically, domestic partner benefits are similar to those available to married spouses.
This article looks at the current laws about domestic partnerships in the United States.
What Is a Domestic Partnership?
Domestic partnerships (or civil unions) give unmarried partners in committed relationships certain protections. Same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples can register with their city, state, or company as domestic partners. Once they become a registered domestic partnership, they can enjoy certain benefits.
Domestic partner benefit plans often include:
- Health benefits like health insurance coverage and dental benefits
- Life insurance benefits
- Death benefits
- Parental rights to dependent children or a domestic partner's child
- Sick leave and family member medical leave
- Bereavement leave
- Visitation rights in healthcare facilities
- Housing rights
- Social security benefits
- Joint income tax at the state level (the IRS does not recognize domestic partnerships)
Some employers offer domestic partner coverage. They can do this even if the state doesn't recognize that relationship. Contact your employer's human resources department for more information about such benefits.
Why Choose Domestic Partnership?
People have their reasons for choosing not to get married.
- The couple may be concerned about the tax law 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 entity must consider the following:
- 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?
Domestic Partnerships and Federal Law
Many people consider domestic partnerships equal to marriage, but this is not the case. Even if a state affords domestic partners the same rights and benefits, the federal government does not recognize domestic partners in the same way. This applies to federal tax treatment and eligibility for federally-run benefit programs and health coverage.
Marriage provides certain legal protections unavailable to couples in a domestic partnership. For example, married couples can enroll in each other's health insurance plans without tax implications. Domestic partners may face tax consequences for the same coverage. Additionally, some employers may offer benefits for spouses but not for domestic partners.
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. An experienced family law attorney can help you understand the pros and cons of a domestic partnership. They can evaluate your situation and help you with your domestic partnership registration.
To learn more, contact an experienced family law attorney in your area.
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