Before same-sex marriage was widely recognized, many same-sex couples opted to enter into domestic partnerships. However, domestic partnerships were not limited to same-sex couples. In many states, counties, and municipalities, civil unions and domestic partnerships extended benefits, rights and responsibilities associated with marriage to same-sex couples. The benefits of a domestic partnership vary from state to state but may include: access to family health insurance plans, spousal visitation rights in hospitals and jails, and the ability to use family leave (paid or unpaid) in order to perform specific tasks concerning one’s domestic partner or the partner’s dependents. However, domestic partnerships do not alter rights or responsibilities in other areas of law including immigration and federal taxes: U.S. Customs and Immigration Service does not treat domestic partnerships as marriages and domestic partners may not file their federal taxes jointly.
In the first dozen years of the twenty-first century, eight states (Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Vermont) recognized civil unions. Six other states (California, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin) and the District of Columbia recognized domestic partnerships. However, by 2015, those numbers changed drastically. Thirty-seven states passed same-sex marriage laws, while just thirteen states (Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas) had passed constitutional or statutory provisions banning same-sex marriage. In June 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges established that same-sex couples enjoy the legal right to marry, along with all other financial and legal rights that accompany marriage. This decision effectively made same-sex marriage the law of the land. In the wake of Obergell, some states (including Delaware) legally converted registered domestic partnerships to marriages while other states continued to recognize civil unions or domestic partnerships as valid alternative arrangements.
Some cities and counties also have their own domestic partnership laws and registries.
Although marriage is more widely available, couples may wish to enter into a partnership or union rather than a marriage because such arrangements are less formal and generally easier to enter into. To register a domestic partnership both partners must have reached the age of majority (usually 18, although some states, including California and New Jersey, allow a person under the age of 18 to enter into a domestic partnership with parental consent), be mentally competent, and be unmarried or not engaged in another domestic partnership or civil union. Partners also must cohabitate or share a permanent residence. Additional considerations may require that the domestic relationship between partners is exclusive, committed and entails financial interdependence.
Statements of domestic partnership, like applications for marriage licenses, are typically registered with the state through a county clerk’s or registrar’s office. These applications often take the form of affidavits or legally binding, sworn statements. Applicants need not apply in person, but some states require the forms to be notarized. Many domestic partners registration forms can be found online at state or county government websites. Information collected typically includes names, signatures, dates of birth and mailing address of the parties filing for domestic partnership benefits. The forms may ask the applicants to provide other information, including their shared residency, ages, capacity to give consent, consent to jurisdictional rules, and status as persons who are not forbidden by marriage or blood tie or other legal reason from forming a domestic partnership. The applicants must also pay a filing fee, which varies from place to place.
The rules for dissolving a domestic partnership widely vary. In California, if a domestic partnership has lasted for more than five years, produced children, or fails to meet certain requirements pertaining to property and debts, then a couple must get a standard divorce. Otherwise, petitioning the Secretary of State or municipal office will dissolve the partnership. In the District of Columbia, either partner may file for termination or the partnership may terminate automatically if one of the partners marries someone else or abandons their partner or shared residence. In New Jersey, one partner must petition the Superior Court for dissolution of the partnership, which initiates a process very similar to divorce.
Updated January 19, 2019
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