What Is a Domestic Partnership?

A domestic partnership is not identical to marriage, but it provides some of the same benefits. Some states refer to the institution as a "civil union." But the definition of a domestic partnership or civil union varies from one city or state to the next.

Two people in a committed relationship often want to formalize their bond and gain certain legal rights. One way they can do this is by entering a domestic partnership. A domestic partnership is a legally recognized relationship that can offer many similar benefits as a marriage.

Most domestic partners were in same-sex relationships before the Supreme Court's 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision, especially if they lived in a state that banned same-sex marriage. But it is still an option in a few states for partners (same-sex couples or opposite-sex couples) who live together and share a common domestic life. However, some states and cities that offer the arrangement require that one of the individuals is at least 62 years old.

The following is a general overview of domestic partnerships, focusing on registration and benefits.

How to Register as Domestic Partners

To enter a registered domestic partnership, a couple must meet certain requirements. These requirements can vary by state law. Typically, both parties must be adults (usually 18 years of age or older) and not related by blood in a way that would prevent a marriage. They must live together (have a common residence) and be in a committed relationship.

In many places, the couple must file a Declaration of Domestic Partnership with the Secretary of State or City Clerk. This is an official document that publicly declares their commitment to each other. In some states, like Oregon, Colorado, and Wisconsin, domestic partnerships are registered at the county level. Other states, like New Jersey, Hawaii, and Nevada, have their own specific domestic partnership laws.

In the District of Columbia, residents seeking to register as domestic partners must appear in person at the D.C. Department of Health. They must submit a single application and pay a fee. Also, they must provide documentation proving that they satisfy the registration requirements.

Domestic Partner Benefits

A domestic partnership is a legal or personal relationship between two people who live together and share a common domestic life but are not married. People in domestic partnerships receive similar benefits to married couples. However, they don't get all the benefits of marriage.

Domestic partners are entitled to some of the legal benefits of marriage – but not all. The benefits of these types of unions vary by state and jurisdiction.

Some of the common benefits of domestic partnership include:

  • Ability to get coverage on a family health insurance policy for healthcare
  • Right to family leave for a sick partner
  • Right to bereavement leave
  • Visitation rights in hospitals and jails

Domestic partner benefits vary, as you can see from the following examples:

  • California: Domestic partners receive the same benefits and protections as married couples, although federal law does not recognize these unions. This means domestic partners may not collect Social Security benefits from deceased partners, for example.
  • Maryland: Unmarried couples may enter a designated beneficiary agreement, allowing limited rights. This can include the right to visit each other in the hospital, share a room in a nursing home, and make funeral decisions.
  • Ann Arbor, Michigan: This is limited to Ann Arbor City employees, who may extend employment benefits to their partners.

A domestic partnership can also end, like a divorce. This is called a termination of a domestic partnership. The process can involve the division of community property. Termination may require legal assistance, depending on the complexity of the situation.

Questions About a Domestic Partnership? An Attorney Can Help

If you're planning to enter or terminate a domestic partnership, it's best to know the laws of your state. You should also be aware of the federal laws protecting same-sex unions. It is helpful to understand legal matters related to domestic partnerships. Speaking to an attorney can help you tremendously.

To learn more, consider speaking with a family law attorney near you.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Property and financial issues in domestic partnerships can be challenging
  • Attorneys can draft a cohabitation agreement to solve any concerns
  • You may need legal help with property division and child custody

Get tailored advice about the domestic partnership laws in your state. Many attorneys offer free consultations.

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Don't Forget About Estate Planning

People in a domestic partnership should create or change their estate planning forms. Take the time to add new beneficiaries (including your partner!) to your will. Consider creating a power of attorney to ensure your partner can access your financial accounts. Also, a health care directive lets your partner make your medical decisions if you ever become incapacitated.

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