Domestic Partnerships and Civil Unions

civil union gay couple

Introduction to Domestic Partnerships and Civil Unions

Domestic partnersMany people believe that marriage is the only way to not only profess love to their significant other, but to receive benefits from the government. While domestic partnerships and civil unions do not provide as many benefits as a marriage does, there are still a lot of benefits available for those entering into domestic partnerships and civil unions. The recognition of domestic partnerships and civil unions vary from state to state, while marriage is not recognized by all fifty states and is available for same-sex couples. Federal law does not recognize domestic partnerships or civil unions.[i] For this reason, the benefits that domestic partnerships and civil unions receive are state based only.[ii]

Domestic Partnerships Generally

To begin with, only eight states currently recognize domestic partnerships. Those states include, California, Oregon, Washington, Main, Hawaii, District of Columbia, Nevada, and Wisconsin.[iii] Generally speaking, many people believe that domestic partnerships are similar to marriages, but many people are unsure of what those similarities are (and what the differences are). Domestic partnerships were utilized by same-sex couples, in states that did not recognize same-sex marriage, before the Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in all of the fifty states.[iv] Even though same-sex marriage is legally recognized in all fifty states, domestic partnership is still an option for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples who live together and share a common domestic life.[v] Some states only offer domestic partnerships to individuals who are living together and at least sixty two years old.

In order to register for a domestic partnership, the couple must declare that their relationship constitutes a serious relationship at a courthouse or other designated government office (depending on the state).[vi] States vary on how this process should take place. For example though, the District of Columbia residents who seek to register as a domestic partnership are required to appear in person at the D.C. Department of Health, submit a single application, and pay a fee.[vii] The residents must also provide documentation to prove that they are over the age of 18, are currently unmarried, and are sharing a permanent residence with one another.[viii]

It is noteworthy that not just states can grant domestic partnerships, even municipalities can. In Arizona, Arizona State University has their own domestic partnership application for determining whether on individual can receive the benefit of the tuition waiver because the other individual is an employee of the university. If the university makes the determination that the applying individuals qualify to be in a domestic partnership that status will only apply to university determinations. This means that one individual will receive the tuition benefits because the other individual works at the university. That is the only benefit that stems from the determination. If that couple wishes so seek more benefits as awarded to domestic partners, they have to apply to the state or municipality to receive those benefits.

Benefits of a Domestic Partnership

Domestic partnerships are entitled to some, but not all, of the legal benefits that married couples receive. Some of the common benefits of domestic partnership include:

  • The ability to get coverage on a family health insurance policy;
  • The right to family leave for a sick partner;
  • The right to bereavement leave; and
  • Visitation rights in hospitals and jails.[ix]

The benefits of a domestic partnership may vary from state to state. Here are some examples about how benefits can vary from state to state, and even within a state at the municipality level:

  • In California, domestic partners receive the same benefits and protections as married couples. However, the federal law does not recognize these unions, which, as an example, means that domestic partners may not collect Social Security benefits from their deceased partners;[x]
  • In Maryland, unmarried couples may enter into a designated beneficiary agreement, which allows limited rights for the couple such as the right to visit one another in the hospital, share a room at a nursing home, and the ability to make funeral decisions;[xi]
  • In Ann Arbor, Michigan, employees of Ann Arbor City may extend employment benefits their partners.[xii] No other city may do this.

Civil Unions Generally

partners being domesticCivil unions are very similar to domestic partnerships. Civil unions were initially sought after by same-sex couples before same-sex marriage was legalized in the fifty states.[xiii] Couples in a civil union can receive just as many benefits as couples in a domestic partnership, but again, that will vary from state to state on what benefits are available. Currently, only six states currently recognize civil unions. Those states include, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.[xiv]

Civil unions were first legalized in 1999 in the state of Vermont.[xv] It was used as a way to provide same-sex couples state benefits, civil rights, and protections under the law that were afforded to married couples in the state. Now that same-sex marriage is legalized in all fifty states, civil unions are not as common, but still occur just as domestic partnerships still occur.

Benefits of Civil Unions

Some of the benefits available to couples in a civil union include benefits relating to title, tenure, wrongful death, loss of consortium, adoption, group health insurance, emergency care, property ownership, and tort actions under contracts.[xvi]

Civil unions provide legal recognition to the couples’ relationship and provide legal rights to the partners similar to those accorded to spouses in marriages.

Conclusion to Domestic Partnerships and Civil Unions

Now that all fifty states in the United States legally recognize same-sex marriage, the old alternatives to marriage are not as frequently used. However, entering into a domestic partnership or civil union can provide a lot of benefits for couples who are either not ready to enter into a marriage, or want to receive benefits as if they were married but do not want to actually get married. While domestic partnerships and civil unions do not afford all of the benefits a marriage does, there are still substantial and important benefits that are afford. Those benefits can include the ability to join a family health insurance plan and visit your partner in the hospital[xvii]

Domestic partnerships and civil unions are also much easier to end than a marriage, which is often an appealing situation. For example, if a young couple has a child and they desire to be all together on one health plan but are far from ready to actually be married, a domestic partnership may be the best route for them. That way, if there is a desire to end the domestic partnership, while it can be complicated, it will not be as complicated as a divorce for a marriage.

Resources Consulted

[i] See What is a Domestic Partnership FindLaw (Accessed January 19, 2017)

[ii] Id.

[iii] See Same Sex Marriages, Civil Unions, and Domestic Partnership FindLaw (Accessed January 19, 2017)

[iv] Id.

[v] Id.

[vi] See What is a Domestic Partnership FindLaw (Accessed January 19, 2017)

[vii] Id.

[viii] Id.

[ix] Id.

[x] Id.

[xi] Id.

[xii] Id.

[xiii] See Same Sex Marriages, Civil Unions, and Domestic Partnership FindLaw (Accessed January 19, 2017)

[xiv] See Same Sex Marriages, Civil Unions, and Domestic Partnership FindLaw (Accessed January 19, 2017)

[xv] Id.

[xvi] Id.

[xvii] See What is a Domestic Partnership FindLaw (Accessed January 19, 2017)