The exact definition of what constitutes a domestic partnership can vary greatly from state to state. In general, the legal definition of a domestic partnership is a committed relationship between two people who live together but are not legally married. The purpose of registering such a relationship as a domestic partnership is to receive some of the legal benefits and rights that married couples are entitled to.

Not every state recognizes domestic partnerships, although most do to some degree. Domestic partners share their residence, as well as their finances, and may raise a child together as unmarried parents. Domestic partnership was initially offered as an alternative to marriage for same-sex couples. However, as same-sex marriage was legalized in the United States in 2015, domestic partnership is now offered to all.

There are no federal guidelines which govern domestic partnerships. Each state is responsible for creating and implementing its own rules and regulations related to domestic partnerships. An example of this would be what rights and legal protections are offered to domestic partners.

Some of the ways in which a domestic partnership differs from a traditional, legally recognized marriage include:

  • The right to enter into a marriage is considered to be entitled to all individuals in every state, while not all states recognize or allow domestic partnerships;
  • Marriage offers more legal protections and benefits than domestic partnerships;
  • Domestic relationships are not considered “family” in legal terms;
  • Married couples can file jointly on their tax returns, while those in a domestic partnership cannot; and
  • Domestic relationships may not be entitled to social security and life insurance benefits in the same way that married couples experience.

Can An Employee’s Health Benefits Provide Coverage For Their Domestic Partner?

It is becoming increasingly common for an employer to offer health insurance coverage for domestic partners. However, it is important to note that private employers are not legally required to extend health benefit coverage to the domestic partner that does not work for them.

Generally speaking, companies that offer health benefits to domestic partners require the employed partner to provide evidence of the existence of their domestic partner relationship. It is important to note that this is not generally a requirement for employees who are married. Domestic partners may be asked to provide copies of their rental agreements or bills in order to prove the relationship.

If an employee’s domestic partner is denied benefits, and the employee wishes to receive such benefits under the workplace policy, there are other options. The most obvious option is that the employee marries their partner, and spouses will automatically be eligible for most health insurance plans and employment benefits. Another option is that the employee uses their domestic partnership as evidence to prove up a common law marriage. As noted above, with traditional and common law marriages a spouse and couple will be afforded more benefits that affect the couple unit.

What Is Required For a Domestic Partner to Receive Employment Benefits? What Other Types of Benefits Are Covered?

In order for the non-employee domestic partner to be eligible for employment benefits, the employed partner will need to prove that their partner meets specific criteria. It is important to note that this criteria can vary from state to state, as well as from employer to employer.

Therefore, it is always the best practice for an employee to reach out to their benefits coordinator, which is generally the employee’s human resources department, in order to determine what the criteria is for a domestic partner to receive employment benefits.

Generally speaking, most employers will require that the domestic partner:

  • Is involved in a “committed relationship” with their employed partner;
  • Is involved in an “exclusive relationship” with their employed partner;
  • Is financially interdependent with their employed partner; and
  • Is at least the age of majority, which is generally 18 years old.

There are some employment benefit plans for domestic partnerships that also include same-sex relationships. However, not all states will recognize same-sex domestic partnerships when allowing for employment benefits coverage. Additionally, some employers may enforce a waiting period before the domestic partner becomes eligible for the benefits plan. This waiting period generally lasts between six months and one year.

Further, some employment benefits do not even require proof of relationship, just that the employee names the party on the benefit form. For example, an employee may receive a discount that they could extend to friends and family, and give that benefit to their domestic partner by simply filling in their name.

Once again, the actual benefits that are offered to a covered employee’s domestic partner can vary dramatically from one workplace to another. Most domestic partner benefit plans will only offer the basic, minimal benefits.

Some examples of basic benefits that may be offered generally include:

  • Expenses resulting from relocation as required by the company;
  • Access to company equipment and property;
  • Permitted presence at company functions; and
  • Additional sick leave if their partner becomes ill.

As previously mentioned, some employers will extend healthcare coverage to the employee’s domestic partner. Although this is becoming increasingly common, it is still somewhat of a rarity. This could be due to the fact that the overall number of employees who participate in domestic partner benefit plans is generally low.

What Else Should I Know About Domestic Partnerships?

Something to consider would be the tax consequences of domestic partnership benefits. The IRS considers domestic partner benefits to be taxable income. This is in direct opposition to spousal benefits, which are tax free. The fact that these benefits are considered to be taxable income may be another reason why employee participation in domestic partner benefit plans tends to be low.

In order to receive any benefits offered by the state, it is likely that a couple involved in a domestic partnership will need to formalize their partnership and register with their state. Although the process will vary on a state by state basis, the following are some general criteria for doing so:

  • Both applicants must be at least 18 years old;
  • Both applicants must be unmarried;
  • Both applicants must be mentally competent in terms of being able to legally sign a contract;
  • Neither applicant may be in another domestic partnership relationship; and
  • The couple must have been in their committed relationship for a minimum of six months.

Qualifying couples will begin the process by filing their applications with the court, and signing them with witnesses present. Each applicant will need to provide proper identification, such as a driver’s license or passport. Additionally, the couple will need to provide a copy of their current lease, mortgage, or rental agreement which names both partners as occupants of the residence.

Do I Need an Attorney For Employment Benefits For Domestic Partners?

If you are in a domestic partnership and have questions regarding employment benefits, you should consult with a local family lawyer. Because states vary so greatly from one another in terms of domestic partnerships and employment benefits for domestic partners, it is in your best interest to work with someone in your state. An experienced and local family law attorney will be best suited to understanding how your state recognizes domestic partnerships, and whether a domestic partner may receive any employment benefits.

An experienced family attorney can also answer questions you may have related to obtaining benefits for your domestic partner. If you or your partner feel that you were unfairly denied employment benefits for domestic partners, a family attorney can advise you regarding your best course of legal action. Finally, an attorney will also be able to submit all necessary legal pleadings on your behalf, and represent you in court, as needed.