Though same-sex marriage is now the law of the land in the United States, many couples are still legally bound together by civil unions and domestic partnerships.
A domestic partnership is a legal agreement between two people who choose to live together in a committed relationship but who are not legally married. Though most domestic partnerships involve parties of the same sex, individuals of opposite sexes may also enter into a domestic partnership.
Domestic partnerships can offer a number of emotional and legal benefits. For the parties, they demonstrate a public acknowledgement of their commitment to each other. They can also make the parties eligible for a wide range of benefits, including employer-sponsored healthcare plans, access to sick or bereavement leave, decision-making authority for medical or financial matters, and rights to death benefits or inheritance.
Though each state or municipality has its own criteria, a domestic partner is generally considered to be an unrelated and unmarried person with whom you cohabitate in a committed and intimate relationship.
Domestic partnerships are governed by local and/or state law. Though the laws differ in each jurisdiction, there is typically a registry where couples must file an application and may be required to submit a copy of a domestic partnership agreement. Generally, both partners must appear at the registry (often the city or county clerk’s office) with proof of identification and residence. Once the couple meets the requirements set forth by state or local law, the registry office typically issues a domestic partnership certificate, which can be used to help the couple gain access to all appropriate benefits.
Marriage conveys rights that may not be available to domestic partners. For example, under federal gift and estate tax law, married couples have rights that are not afforded to domestic partners. Domestic partners may also face challenges getting access to insurance proceeds, retirement plans and pensions, and government benefits such as social security.
Marriage is legally sanctioned and recognized in all 50 states, whereas only a handful of states still recognize domestic partnerships. Accordingly, unmarried domestic partners who move to a state that does not recognize domestic partnerships may encounter limits on their rights.
Though similar in many ways, civil unions and domestic partnerships have a few minor differences. Civil unions are generally created by state legislatures and typically grant parties legal rights related to personal injury or wrongful death claims, property ownership, group health insurance, and emergency medical care. Domestic partnerships may be recognized pursuant to either local or state law and generally permit the parties a wide range of benefits through employers.
A domestic partnership agreement is a legal document, essentially a contract, that sets forth the terms and conditions of the relationship. A domestic partnership agreement is not always required in order to register a domestic partnership and enjoy the legal benefits. Consult your local or state law.
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