On June 26, 2015, the United States Supreme Court issued a historic decision legalizing same-sex marriage. Although marriage equality is now a dream come true for so many, countless same-sex (and heterosexual) couples prefer to remain unmarried. Of course staying unmarried means these couples aren’t entitled to claim the same rights and responsibilities of married spouses. However, depending on where they work and/or live, some unmarried couples may have the option to register for domestic partner benefits.
What Is a Domestic Partnership?
Many states define domestic partnership as a relationship between two people who live together as a couple, but are not legally married. To become registered domestic partners, a couple must take specific steps to apply or register with an employer, local government, and/or the state. A valid domestic partnership offers unmarried couples many of the same rights given to married couples. However, domestic partners aren’t entitled to any federal spousal benefits, such as federal tax credits or Social Security benefits on a spouse's work record—these are limited to legally married couples.
Domestic partnerships are typically easier to end than traditional marriage, and usually only requires a couple to file termination papers with the city and/or state.
Employers in every state can offer benefits to couples even if the state doesn't extend domestic partner benefits. The specific requirements and benefits will vary from company to company. For more information, contact your human resources department.
Some of the most common benefits include:
- health insurance coverage through a partner’s employer
- the right to family leave in order to care for a sick partner
- bereavement leave
- visitation rights in jails and hospitals, and
- the right to make medical decisions for a partner.
There are no uniform rules that determine what domestic partner benefits a company, city, or state offers, so it’s important for each couple to check with their local government(s) and employer(s) for details.
Is a Domestic Partnership the Same Thing as a Civil Union?
No. Although they both offer similar benefits to couples, civil unions were only available to same-sex couples. After same-sex marriage became legal, most states stopped offering civil unions and passed laws which automatically converted existing civil unions to marriage, unless they were dissolved by a certain date.
Domestic partnerships may be available to same-sex and heterosexual couples and do not automatically convert to marriage. Relationship, age, and residency requirements are only some of the factors to consider when deciding if you qualify for a domestic partnership in your city or state.
How do We Apply for a Domestic Partnership?
The requirements for a domestic partnership will vary depending on your state, but generally, couples must fill out an application and sign it in front of witnesses and a notary public. A notary public will verify the partners’ identities with some form of state identification, like a driver’s license. You will also need to pay an application fee (usually $20-$40). Some states offer a domestic partnership registry, which is a way to announce your partnership and is similar to a marriage license. Unless the registry is confidential, the registry will be a public document.
When you complete the application, you are telling the agency that you are:
- two adults sharing and committing to a life together
- not currently married or in another domestic partnership
- not related by blood in a way that would prevent marriage in your state, and
- that each person is at least 18 years’ old
Many of the states that continue to offer domestic partnerships, such as California, also require that one partner be at least 62 years old if the registering couple is heterosexual.
Where are Domestic Partnership Benefits Available?
After marriage equality became law, many states stopped offering domestic partnership benefits. There are a few states that continue to offer benefits to unmarried couples. Remember, domestic partnerships rules and regulations can be complicated and the requirements can change quickly. It is best to speak with a local attorney for the most up-to-date information on benefits and requirements in your state.
Which States Continue to Allow Domestic Partnerships or Similar Benefits?
As of October 2016, the states that continue to offer domestic partnerships or civil unions are:
California- the state of California extends domestic partner benefits.
Colorado- civil unions performed prior to June 26, 2015 will be or have been converted to marriage.
Connecticut- civil unions performed prior to October 1, 2010 have been converted to marriage.
District of Columbia - offers domestic partnership registrations.
Delaware- civil unions performed prior to June 26, 2015 converted to marriage.
Hawaii- the state of Hawaii offers civil unions.
Illinois- the state of Illinois offers civil unions.
Maine – offers limited domestic partnerships
Nevada- the state continues to allow domestic partnerships.
New Jersey- recognizes domestic partnerships for same-sex couples, but these offer only limited benefits. The state also offers civil unions, which provide marriage-equivalent benefits.
New Hampshire- civil unions performed prior to June 26, 2015 converted to marriage.
Oregon- the state offers domestic partnership benefits.
Rhode Island- civil unions performed prior to June 26, 2015 converted to marriage.
Vermont- the state recognizes civil unions performed prior to September 2009 and extends benefits for domestic partners. Civil unions performed after September 2009 converted to marriage.
Washington- the state extends domestic partnership benefits to same-sex couples. Heterosexual couples may qualify for domestic partnership benefits if at least one partner is over the age of 62.
Wisconsin – the state continues to offer limited domestic partnership benefits.
Which Cities or Counties Allow Domestic Partnerships?
Arizona- the cities of Phoenix and Tucson extend benefits.
Connecticut- the city of Hartford offers domestic partnership registrations.
Florida- the city of Orlando maintains a registry. Broward county extends benefits and maintains a registry. The city of West Palm Beach extends benefits.
Georgia- the city of Atlanta extends benefits and maintains a registry.
Illinois- the city of Chicago and Cook county extend benefits. The city of Oak Park extends benefits and maintains a registry.
Indiana- the city of Bloomington extends benefits.
Iowa- Iowa city extends benefits and maintains a registry.
Louisiana- the city of New Orleans extends benefits.
Maine- the city of Portland extends benefits and maintains a registry.
Maryland- the cities of Baltimore and Tacoma Park extend benefits. Montgomery county extends benefits.
Massachusetts- many cities, but not all, extend benefits and maintain registries.
Michigan- Kalamazoo, Washtenaw, and Wayne counties extend benefits. The cities of Ann Arbor and East Lansing extend benefits and maintain a registry.
Minnesota- Minneapolis extends benefits and maintains a registry.
Missouri- Kansas City and St. Louis offer benefits and maintain a registry.
New Mexico- the city of Albuquerque extends benefits.
New York- many cities and counties, but not all, extend benefits and maintain registries.
North Carolina- the city of Chapel hill extends benefits and maintains a registry. The city of Carrboro maintains a registry.
Ohio- the city of Cincinnati extends benefits and maintains a registry.
Oregon- the city of Portland and county of Multnomah extend benefits. The city of Ashland maintains a registry.
Pennsylvania- the city of Philadelphia extends benefits.
Texas- Travis county extends benefits.
Virginia- Arlington county extends benefits. The city of Alexandria extends benefits to its city employees.
Wisconsin- in addition to the state benefits, many cities, but not all, extend benefits and maintain a registry.
What If My City, County, State or Employer Don’t Offer Domestic Partnership Benefits?
If domestic partnership isn’t an option in your location, and you don’t want to get married, you can still protect yourselves by completing legal documents, including:
- power of attorney for medical and financial decisions
- living will (this document allows you to express what your wishes are if you can’t make decisions on your own)
- custody agreement
- property agreement, and
- cohabitation agreement.
While these documents don’t offer the same benefits as domestic partnership and marriage, they may allow unmarried couples to have some control over their financial, medical, and other needs. Check with an attorney in your area for more information.