Domestic Partner Benefits
Domestic partnerships were created in the 1980s after a struggle for legal recognition of same-sex couples by gay rights activists. Now that state same-sex marriage bans have been declared unconstitutional (Obergefell v. Hodges), domestic partnerships are much less sought after. However, cohabitating partners who don't want to get married may consider it as a way to obtain certain benefits.
The benefits available to a domestic partner are very similar to those available to a married spouse, but often differ in a few key areas. And in the wake of Obergefell, which opens up marriage to same-sex couples at the federal level, many employers have discontinued benefits for domestic partners (typically with a grace period to allow for other arrangements).
What Is a Domestic Partnership?
Domestic partnerships are designed to give each partner in the partnership many of the same benefits, economic and noneconomic, as married couples. Some states call domestic partnerships civil unions, but the overall design is similar. While domestic partnerships were originally created to accommodate same-sex couples, opposite-sex couples may register as domestic partners as well.
The benefits afforded to domestic partners differ greatly between states. The benefits granted to domestic partnerships to make them comparable to married couples will often include:
- Health insurance
- Life insurance
- Death benefits
- Parental rights
- Sick and family leave
- Tax treatment
Issues in Creating Domestic Partner Benefits
Several important issues must be determined by the state, local or public entity that wishes to provide domestic partnerships including:
- Are there any qualifications for becoming a domestic partner?
- How does a domestic partnership end?
- Can couples register for domestic partnership if marriage is already available to them?
- Is there a set time that a couple must be together before they can register?
- Is there a set time that a couple must live together?
- Will the partners be financially responsible for each other?
- How do employers treat domestic partnerships?
- Does creating domestic partnerships violate any existing state laws or constitutional requirements?
Domestic Partnerships and Marriage
Many people consider domestic partnerships to be the exact equivalent of marriage in terms of rights and benefits, but this is not the case. One of the primary reasons for this is because marriage is defined on a state by state basis. Even if a state affords domestic partnerships the exact same rights and benefits it grants to married couples in that state, a domestic partnership still loses out on the many rights and benefits that a married couple can receive from the federal government (although married same-sex couples now have access to these same rights and benefits). Typical examples of this include federal tax treatment as well as eligibility for many federally run benefit programs.
Domestic Partnerships and Your State
Keeping track of which states, municipalities, companies and organizations offer domestic partner benefits can be extremely difficult. The state of such partnerships is far from established, particularly after the Supreme Court's Obergefell decision. Fortunately, there are a number of websites that can help you determine the domestic partnership benefits available to you where you live. These websites include the Lambda Defense and Education website (www.lambdalegal.org), the Human Rights Campaign website (www.hrc.org) and the Alternatives to Marriage website (www.unmarried.org).