When it comes to legal relationship terms, the only ones that most people can think of are marriages or civil unions. But there is another legal status completely separate from these known as the domestic partnership. And when it comes to helping describe the term, a domestic partnership is perhaps best defined by what it is not. It is a relationship where two people live together, but are not bound by marriage, civil union, or other legally recognized contract.
While in some places domestic partnerships enjoy some of the same rights that marriages do, in most states they are afforded fewer or no rights as compared to a marriage. So what are these rights, and what jurisdictions allow them for domestic partnerships? Let’s take a closer look at the laws.
Yes, and no. Before 2015, same-sex couples could not get legally married in many states. As such, they sometimes used domestic partnerships as a way to get at least some of the rights that married couples did. In fact, the origin of the term can be traced back to gay rights activitists from California in the 1970s.
However, after Obergefell v. Hodges legally same-sex marriage across America, these couples could then take advantage of the full bevy of rights that being legally married offers. But domestic partnerships themselves are not just for same-sex couples. In fact, many heterosexual couples can also use this status when a marriage is not something that both individuals want to pursue.
Some states that do offer domestic partnership protections often require that the couple register to formally receive them, while some do not. Exactly what legal rights and benefits they receive depends on the state they live in. Some of the benefits that a jurisdiction can guarantee domestic partners are health, dental, and vision benefits, as well as health insurance and sick leave, and other employee benefits.
Some jurisdictions often mirror the rights guaranteed in the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). In addition, these laws can grant recognized domestic partners the protections of housing and public access/recreation rights. Public employers such as local and state agencies, as well as private companies and non-profit organizations, may offer these benefits.
There are a few instances where domestic partners are also expected to saddle responsibilities as well as receive the rights and benefits offered to them by law. For example, in California a domestic partner is considered financially responsible for the other party during the relationship, much like a marriage. These states with more sweeping domestic partner rights and responsibilities may also have a property distribution scheme similar to a regular divorce if the relationship ends.
However, for the majority of states, domestic partners receive neither the responsibilities nor the rights that marriages have in terms of taxes, property rights, and inheritance rights. Checking your local and state laws is the best way to know which of these rights, benefits, and responsibilities (if any) could apply to a domestic partnership.
Domestic partnership benefits vary from state to state, from none at all to full rights. Most U.S. jurisdictions fall into the former category, with many states offering no benefits at all. Those states that fall somewhere in the middle usually sees partnership rights offered in some cities or counties, but not in others.
Classifications of domestic partnership rights by state are:
- The “No Rights” States: There are many states where no domestic partnership benefits exist. These are: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, MIssissippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia, Wyoming;
- The “Some” States: These are the states where benefits are offered in a few places, such as individual counties or cities: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin. To see where exactly these benefits are offered, check the laws of the state, and then search for which city/county/townships provides these rights; and
- The “All In” States: These states offer full domestic partnership benefits throughout the state: Connecticut, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, Washington.
Yes. Domestic partnership laws can vary so widely not only between states, but between counties and cities that it is easy to get confused about which protections you are afforded and which you are not. This is why if you are facing any potential legal issues with a domestic partnership, you need to contact an experienced local family law attorney.
Your attorney can explain all the laws and tell you which rights and responsibilities apply to your specific situation. And if you find yourself in legal conflict over domestic partnership issues, they can properly advise you on the best course of action and be your advocate every step of the way.