A domestic partnership is a type of relationship between two individuals who live together and share common domestic responsibilities, such as maintaining the property and caring for family members in the home. The individuals that form a domestic partnership do not necessarily need to be romantically involved, but usually are in most cases.

Although domestic partnerships were initially created as a way of recognizing same-sex marriages, many states have since abolished this legal status after same-sex marriages were legalized in 2015. However, a handful of states still recognize domestic partnerships regardless of sexual orientation. 

Individuals in a domestic partnership enjoy many of the same rights as couples who are married. For instance, under domestic partnership law, some benefits and rights that domestic partners may receive include: 

  • Housing rights;
  • Death benefits (e.g., survivorship rights);
  • Bereavement or sick leave;
  • Spousal benefits (e.g., health, vision, and dental insurance); and/or
  • Parental leave

Finally, it should be noted that domestic partnership laws and rights can vary widely among the states that recognize the nonmarital status. The one area that remains consistent when it comes to domestic partnerships is that the federal government will not offer the same tax benefits or treat domestic partners the same as married couples.

What is Community Property?

In general, community property refers to any assets or property that a couple acquires during a marriage (or in this case a domestic partnership) and is thus jointly owned. Only a handful of states, including California, employ the community property method of distribution. 

The way in which community property distribution works during a divorce or legal separation is that the court will review the couple’s assets for what items are considered community property and split them evenly between the parties. 

Any property that belonged to an individual before the parties entered into the marriage or partnership, was specifically gifted to one person by a third party during the couples’ arrangement, or is obtained after the dissolution of their arrangement, will be considered separate property and therefore not shared by both parties. 

However, there are some situations where a court may find that a particular asset or piece of property has been altered enough to become community property. For instance, the shared residence may become community property if the names of both parties appear on the deed to the home.  

Additionally, if the parties specifically contracted to have some assets or property labeled community or separate property, then this contract can help the court dictate the terms of distribution as well. 

How Does Domestic Partnership vs Marriage Differ Under California Community Property Law?

Domestic partnership rights in California have recently been expanded to match almost all the same rights that are afforded to married couples. This is due to some legislative changes that have been made to its domestic partnership laws. 

One major change that was not enforced before the new law is that domestic partners are now financially responsible for each other’s debts, both during and after the partnership. Prior to these changes, only married couples were liable for one another’s debts. So, for instance, if one partner fails to pay their credit cards bills, the credit card company can hold the other partner responsible. 

This change in the law has also impacted partners who wish to dissolve their domestic partnership. Since domestic partners are now financially liable to each other, courts will be able to order a partner who is financially better off to pay financial support to the other in the event of a dissolution. 

Just as in a marriage, the community property system will apply to parties who choose to dissolve their domestic partnership. As discussed above, this means that the parties will not only have to divide community property equally, but it will also give them the right to ask a court to intervene in disputes over shared property.

Other property rights that individuals in domestic partnerships will now be allowed to enjoy include:

  • Rent control protections; 
  • Access to housing set aside for students, families, or senior citizens;
  • The right to receive a portion of a partner’s property if they die intestate; 
  • The right to be treated as a spouse to collect workers’ compensation benefits; and
  • Various others listed under relevant state statutes.

The two primary differences that remain under the new laws are that unlike married couples, domestic partners are still not permitted to file joint taxes. Thus, a partner may not be entitled to some benefits packages (e.g., if their partner is a state employee). 

The other main difference that has not been affected by the new changes in the law is that marriage is legally recognized across the entire country, whereas domestic partnerships are not. Therefore, any rights partners are entitled to under California state law may not apply if the partners decide to move to another state.

What Happens to the Community Property When My Domestic Partnership Ends?

As mentioned in the previous section, when the parties to a domestic partnership decide to dissolve the partnership, each partner will be entitled to one-half of whatever is deemed community property by the court. In addition, each partner will be entitled to all property and/or assets that the court considers to be separate property. Thus, any disputes over assets or property will need to be settled in court. 

For example, if one partner believes an item is separate property when it is actually community property and needs to be divided equally, or if one of the partners is still required to pay the debts of the other. 

Also, in the event that a partner dies, the other partner will be entitled to sue for wrongful death where appropriate and has the right to receive a portion of their partner’s property if the partner died intestate. As such, there is a potential for disputes to arise between the state and the surviving partner during probate. 

Can I File a Lawsuit in Connection with a Domestic Partnership Dispute?

Parties have a right to dissolve a domestic partnership in the same manner that couples who are married do (i.e., by getting a divorce). However, if there are no disputes over dissolution, the partners do not have any children, and little property is involved, then the partners may file to dissolve the partnership with the Secretary of State. 

Some other conflicts that domestic partners should also be aware of is that the law now allows a partner who is less financially stable to seek alimony support and child support. Also, if the partners adopted or gave birth to a child during the partnership, the partners will need to go to court to resolve any disputes over child custody and child visitation rights.

Damages and remedies that may be available in connection with a domestic partnership dispute include monetary damages, alimony or child support, an injunction (e.g., if an instance of domestic violence is at issue), and in rare cases, punitive damages.

Should I Hire an Attorney for Help with a Domestic Partnership Issue?

If you have any questions or concerns regarding domestic partnership issues, then you should consider contacting a California family law attorney for further legal advice. Your attorney will be able to explain what rights, protections, and benefits are available to individuals joined in a domestic partnership, as well as any California laws that may affect you and your partner.  

Additionally, if you are not registered yet, your attorney can help you and your partner register for a domestic partnership. Alternatively, your attorney can also help you and your partner dissolve your domestic partnership if you no longer wish to be united.

Finally, your lawyer can also assist with any family-related issues affecting your domestic partnership, such as adoption, parenting concerns, and in the event of a dissolution, distributions of community property.