What Are Domestic Partnerships?
And how they differ from marriageBy Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on July 12, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorney Joseph P. Cadicina
Use these links to jump to different sections:
- What Are Domestic Partnerships?
- The Evolution of Marriage Law in the United States
- Domestic Partnerships are Still Relevant
- Benefits that Come with Domestic Partnership
- Registering for a Domestic Partnership
- Questions for an Attorney
Domestic partnerships are committed relationships where individuals share a residence and live together without being married. Though only recognized by a handful of states, such partnerships give individuals some of the legal benefits of marriage.
To understand domestic partnerships, it helps to put them in some historical perspective. This article will give a basic overview.
If you have questions about registering for a domestic partnership or the preferability of a domestic partnership to other arrangements in your state, consider speaking with a family law attorney.
What Are Domestic Partnerships?
Domestic partnership law “varies from state to state,” says New Jersey family law attorney Joseph P. Cadicina. For example, “the laws of New Jersey are different from those of New York or any other state in the area.”
Some states refer to domestic partnerships as “civil unions,” whereas domestic partnerships and civil unions are different things in other states. The definition of “domestic partnership” and the process for registering as domestic partners also depends on the state.
In states that recognize them, domestic partnerships give individuals certain benefits that traditionally come with marriage but without the same formality. Because of this, cohabitation and domestic partnerships are preferable to getting married for some couples.
That being said, domestic partnerships were traditionally used by same-sex couples who wanted to get married but could not under state and federal law, which at the time banned same-sex marriage. Domestic partnerships used to be the only way for same-sex couples to claim some of the legal rights and benefits reserved for opposite-sex couples in marriage. Now that same-sex marriage is legal throughout the United States, domestic partnerships are no longer the only option.
The Evolution of Marriage Law in the United States
Cadicina gives the evolution of the law in New Jersey as an example.
“Domestic partnerships were formed in New Jersey for basically one reason: The parties could not legally marry in the state. In order to recognize and provide benefits to individuals in certain relationships–usually, the same sex–state law allowed them to enter into domestic partnerships,” says Cadicina.
“One of the primary reasons individuals would register for domestic partnerships was to be considered a household member for purposes of health insurance and other types of recognition that the parties would enter into.”
“The laws then changed in New Jersey, and we went to civil unions, which are more like a marriage than domestic partnerships are,” says Cadicina. “For example, in a domestic partnership, you couldn’t file for divorce and get alimony or division of assets from the other person, whereas you could [get those things] in a civil union.”
“Then the law in New Jersey changed again to allow for a marriage rather than a civil union” for same-sex couples.
“Since this area is governed by state law, these issues and terms are constantly changing and differ from state to state,” concludes Cadicina. “Every state comes up with its own legal concepts for how it will address non-traditional marriages.”
Same-Sex Marriage is Legalized in 2015
As a legal alternative to same-sex marriage, domestic partnerships were especially important prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 case, Obergefell v. Hodges. Obergefell established that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marriage and thus overruled state laws banning same-sex marriages.
Since Obergefell, same-sex marriage has been legal in all states. As a result, domestic partnerships have become less common. In response to the possibility that the Supreme Court could overturn Obergefell and eliminate the constitutional right to same-sex marriage, Congress passed the Respect for Marriage Act (RMFA) in December 2022. Under the RMFA, the federal and state governments must recognize valid same-sex marriages.
Domestic Partnerships are Still Relevant
Though federal and state laws have progressed to recognize same-sex marriage, the following states–plus Washington, D.C., and many cities and municipalities across the U.S.–allow domestic partnerships:
Additionally, civil unions are allowed in the following states:
Benefits that Come with Domestic Partnership
Registered domestic partnerships may secure some of the protections and legal benefits of marriage, including:
- Healthcare benefits
- Housing benefits
- Hospital visitation rights
- Eligibility for work bereavement leave
- Parental rights and child support
- Life insurance
- Inheritance rights in estate planning
A couple of key differences between marriage and domestic partnership benefits are that domestic partners, unlike married couples, can’t jointly file federal tax returns and don’t get Social Security benefits.
Registering for a Domestic Partnership
As noted above, state laws governing domestic partnerships vary. This includes the legal process for registering as domestic partners.
Despite local variations in registration requirements, couples generally must:
- Complete a domestic partnership application at their local court or municipal government office
- Sign the application in front of a required number of witnesses and possibly have it notarized
- Pay a registration fee
If you are considering a domestic partnership agreement, it’s wise to speak with a lawyer about the benefits and rights of a domestic partnership status where you live. A domestic partnership may be a good fit for you, or you may want to pursue another avenue, depending on your situation.
Questions for an Attorney
Many family law attorneys provide free consultations for potential clients or will count consultation fees toward their legal services.
Initial consultations allow you to get legal advice and consider whether you need legal help.
To get the most out of a meeting, ask a lawyer informed questions such as:
- What are your attorney’s fees and billing options?
- Does my state allow domestic partnerships?
- What are the pros and cons of domestic partnership in my state?
- What benefits are and are not included in a domestic partnership?
- Does it make sense for me to enter a domestic partnership?
- What is the process for registering a domestic partnership in my state?
- What is the process for dissolving a domestic partnership?
Once you have met with a lawyer and gotten your questions answered, you can begin an attorney-client relationship.
You can look for a family law attorney in the Super Lawyers directory for legal help.
Additional Family Law articles
- What Is Family Law?
- What Is a Prenuptial Agreement and Should I Have One?
- Can My Parental Rights Be Reinstated After Termination?
- How Do You Terminate Parental Rights?
- What Does a Guardian Ad Litem Do?
- What Common Law Marriage Means in Real Life
- Finding the Balance in Tri-Parenting Agreements
- An Overview on Mediation and Collaborative Law
- What Happens if Your Ex-Spouse Leaves the State and Isn't Paying Spousal Support?
State Family Law articles
Find top lawyers with confidence
The Super Lawyers patented selection process is peer influenced and research driven, selecting the top 5% of attorneys to the Super Lawyers lists each year. We know lawyers and make it easy to connect with them.Find a lawyer near you