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What Is a Domestic Partnership, and How Does It Differ from Marriage?

Many people associate the term "domestic partnership" with same-sex couples. But domestic partnerships can actually take several different forms – assuming you live in a state that recognizes domestic partnership as an alternative to marriage.

Domestic partnership vs. marriage

Domestic partnerships were originally intended to give same-sex couples essential legal and economic rights because there was no legal same-sex marriage. While marriage is now legal for all couples in the U.S., some still favor domestic partnerships.

Domestic partnership according to the federal government

Two unmarried people who live together and have an intimate relationship may be considered domestic partners. However, the relationship is not recognized by the federal government. This means domestic partners cannot take advantage of joint tax filings and other federal benefits.

Domestic partnership according to state government

Despite the federal government’s lack of recognition, states with laws in place for domestic partnerships and civil unions (California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Nevada, New Jersey, and Oregon) recognize registered domestic partners. Since the state government regulates the laws for these partnerships, couples may receive many of the same benefits as married individuals.

Notably, domestic partnership laws are not uniform across the states that recognize them. In fact, individual counties within a state may offer different benefits to domestic partners. 

For example, California state law extends the same benefits, rights, and protections that married couples enjoy to all registered domestic partnerships. Meanwhile, the state of Michigan doesn’t recognize these unions at all, though some cities within the state (Ann Arbor, Detroit, East Lansing, and Kalamazoo) do recognize them.

What constitutes a domestic partnership?

The lack of federal guidelines for domestic partnerships leaves specific laws up to each state. Here are a few examples.

Domestic partnerships in California

Under California state law, a domestic partnership involves two adults who share their lives in an intimate, committed relationship. While the law does not specifically state whether the couple must live together, it does say neither partner can be in a marriage or domestic partnership with another person. It also stipulates that both partners must be 18 or older. The couple cannot be related by blood, and both must consent to the partnership. 

Couples in California who want to enter a registered domestic partnership must do so through the Secretary of State. Although they could also register with their city government, they will not receive all the benefits provided by the state unless they register at the state level.

Domestic partnerships in Colorado

Colorado uses the term “civil union” instead of domestic partnership. However, its laws regarding civil unions are nearly identical to California’s laws, extending the rights and privileges of married couples to domestic partners in a registered civil union. 

Under Colorado law, partners must be at least 18 years old and must live together. They cannot be in another union or marriage, and they must be registered as partners through the county clerk’s office in the county where they live. 

Domestic partnerships in Texas

In Texas, domestic partnerships are not recognized at the state level. However, Bexar, El Paso, and Travis counties, along with most major cities in Texas (Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio), do recognize them.

Domestic partnerships in Utah

Utah currently does not recognize domestic partnerships, civil unions, or common law marriages in any form. 

Benefits of domestic partnership

In most states that recognize domestic partnerships, couples receive the same benefits as those who are married. This often includes health insurance and life insurance benefits, health care and financial decision rights, and parental rights

Domestic partnerships also entail some unique benefits. For example, since federal law does not recognize domestic partnerships, these couples can avoid the marital tax consequences they would incur if their incomes were combined. This can be helpful in partnerships where each person earns just under a certain amount and in partnerships where one person owns a business.

Furthermore, domestic partners who wish to break up do not always undergo the same legal separation process as married couples. This means the partners may avoid issues like spousal support/alimony or the division of community property in the case of separation.

Registering a domestic partnership

The requirements for registering a domestic partnership vary by state. In most cases, the couple must file an application with their county or city clerk and pay a small registration fee to make the domestic partnership "official."

To register your domestic partnership, you will likely need to provide the following:

  • A completed application or affidavit
  • Valid photo identification
  • Proof that you and your partner live together
  • Proof of residence in your county or city

In addition to the required documents, neither partner can be married or in a registered domestic partnership with anyone else. In fact, some states require individuals to be legally separated or divorced from a former partner for at least six months before entering into a domestic partnership with a new partner.

Ending a domestic partnership

Once you register your domestic partnership, it is a legally binding contract. Therefore, you can’t just walk away if you and your partner decide to break up. You must dissolve the partnership in accordance with your state’s dissolution of domestic partnership policy.

The termination of a domestic partnership can be tricky to navigate in some states. Importantly, you don’t want to miss any steps along the way or make a mistake that could cost you time and money. 

Hello Divorce does not just help clients with the traditional divorce process. We also support couples who seek a dissolution of their domestic partnerships. If this sounds like you, take time to peruse our free online resources, and schedule your free 15-minute intro call to start your dissolution on sure footing.