Domestic Partnership

The term domestic partnership refers to an interpersonal relationship between two people who live together as though they are married, but are not legally married, nor in a civil union. This type of legally-recognized relationship affords the partners certain rights, similar to those of married partners, though it is only recognized by a handful of states. To explore this concept, consider the following domestic partnership definition.

Definition of Domestic Partner


  1. A personal relationship in which two people live together like a married couple, but are not married to one another.


1975-1980       U.S. legal term

What is a Domestic Partnership

A domestic partnership is a legally recognized relationship in which two people who live together like a married couple, without being married to each other, are afforded certain similar rights. Domestic partnerships are only recognized in a few states, which require registration of the relationship in order to be afforded those rights.

While this type of relationship is most commonly used by same-sex partners, it is available in some states to partners of same or opposite sex who live together, sharing a domestic life. Jurisdictions that recognize the domestic partner sometimes do so by a different name, such as “civil union.” Although domestic partnerships are formed for the purpose of being able to take advantage of certain rights enjoyed by married couples, they are not the same as marriage. Individuals in such a relationship are not afforded benefits given to married couples by the federal government.

For example:

Melanie and Sharon have registered as domestic partners in their state. When tax time rolls around, the two are able to claim their relationship status, filing their state taxes jointly. When the women attempt to claim the same status on their federal taxes, in this example of domestic partnership recognition, they are disappointed to learn that the federal government does not itself recognize domestic partner status, so they must file separately.

How to Form a Domestic Partnership

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling on same-sex marriage did not change or do away with domestic partnership rights in the states where they are granted. The rules regarding, and process for forming, a domestic partnership vary by jurisdiction, though it is generally required that the couple register the partnership with a specified state or local government office.

While governed by the state’s family law code, in most cases, registration may occur at any level of government, from city or county level, to state level, as specified in the state’s law. Couples who meet the eligibility requirements must complete a form, often referred to as a “Declaration of Domestic Partnership,” or something similar, and pay a fee to the government authority. Registered domestic partnerships become public record, in the same manner that marriage records are public.

Terminating a Domestic Partnership

Couples in a registered domestic partnership, who wish to end their relationship, must formally terminate the partnership by filing a form with the same governmental agency. Termination forms are often called “Notice of Termination of Domestic Partnership,” or something similar. Although filing this signed form legally terminates the relationship, it does not have anything to do with the issues of separation, which must be handled in a manner similar to divorce.

Domestic partnerships are defined by the state’s family law code. Couples who cannot agree about division of property, child custody (if the couple has children together), and child support, must apply to the family court for intervention. Division of assets, such as a home, joint bank accounts, cars, furnishings, and other personal property, will be ordered according to the state’s law, whether it be a community property state, or equitable property state.

For example:

John and Dale, who have lived together in a registered domestic partnership for nine years, split up. The pair live in California, which is a community property state. This means that, upon dissolution of such a relationship, the couple’s marital assets and debts are divided equally between the parties. There is a great deal of animosity, with Dale claiming he should be entitled to the lion’s share of their substantial assets because John had an affair.

Because they cannot come to terms on how to divide the assets, the court must decide. The assets, including a nice home in Southern California, two expensive vehicles, and an art collection, in addition to the usual household items, joint bank account, and savings, total just over $1 million. John and Dale also owed $90,000 on their home, and had about $11,000 in credit card debt.

Although Dale wants to keep the house, with all of its valuable contents, and wants John to take on all of the debt, the court sees things differently. In this example of domestic partnership termination in a community property state, it does not matter who is at fault for the relationship’s demise – all of the assets and debts are divided equally.

Child Custody and Support

Child custody when any relationship is terminated, whether it be a marriage, domestic partnership, or other type of relationship, is governed by state family law, and is ordered with the best interests of the child involved. In the event the partners cannot agree to a shared custody arrangement, including where the child will live primarily, and details of visitation, they will be required to go through the child custody process.

Child support is a right of the child, and does not change according to the type of relationship his parents had. Child support is calculated taking into account to the income of the parties, the time each party has physical care of the child, and other relative financial facts.

Eligibility Requirements for Domestic Partnership

When considering providing benefits to people in domestic partnerships, states, private companies, universities, and other entities must consider a number of important issues.

  • Who will qualify as a domestic partner?
  • What documentation will be required to identify individuals as domestic partners for the purpose of qualifying for benefits?
  • Will the couple be required to have lived together for a minimum period of time?
  • Will the couple be required to share living expenses?
  • Will the couple be required to be financially responsible for one another?
  • What will be required to terminate a domestic partnership?

Although specific requirements may vary by state, certain eligibility requirements that must generally be met include:

  • Both parties must be 18 years of age or older, and competent to enter into a contract
  • The parties may not be related by blood
  • Neither party may be married, or a partner to, someone else
  • The parties must be permanent residents of the state in which the partnership is registered, at the time of registration

Some states recognize domestic partnerships only for:

  • Same-sex couples
  • Opposite-sex couples if at least one partner is age 62 or older

Domestic Partnership States

As of 2016, only 11 states recognize domestic partnerships. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that every state must allow same-sex couples to marry did not affect domestic partnership classification, however, the laws of many of these states have evolved over time, and some made changes following the ruling.

State Additional Information
California Same-sex couples, and opposite-sex couples if one party is age 62 or over; nearly all benefits of marriage; partners may change their last name
Colorado Same-sex and opposite-sex couples; limited rights
District of Columbia Same-sex and opposite-sex couples; full rights
Hawaii Same-sex and opposite-sex couples; full rights
Maine Same-sex and opposite-sex couples; limited rights
Maryland Same-sex and opposite-sex couples; limited rights
Nevada Same-sex and opposite-sex couples; limited rights
New Jersey Same-sex couples, and opposite-sex couples if both parties are age 62 or over; limited rights
Oregon Same-sex and opposite-sex couples; full rights
Wisconsin Same-sex and opposite-sex couples; limited rights
Washington Same-sex and opposite-sex couples only if BOTH parties are age 62 or over; limited rights

Domestic Partnership Benefits

Historically, employers have offered certain benefits to employees, above and beyond their salaries. These have included such things as health insurance, death benefits, sick leave, family leave, and other perks. Those same employers were not required to offer such benefits to the partners of non-married employees. Because of the significant expense of insurance and other benefits, not offering them to non-married partners made sense.

The point of establishing domestic partnership status was to allow employees who lived with their partners, in an intimate, domestic relationship, without being legally married, certain of those benefits. Benefits offered to married couples, which may be offered to domestic partners, include:

  • Health insurance, dental insurance, vision insurance
  • Sick leave, bereavement leave
  • Life insurance
  • Long-term disability insurance
  • Parental leave

In addition to employers, some governmental entities may offer benefits to individuals in a domestic partnership. These include such things as:

  • Housing rights
  • Tuition reduction for higher education

For example:

In 2001, Karen and Alisha had lived together in a committed relationship for 12 years. Their state did not allow same-sex marriages, and did not recognize domestic partnerships. Karen worked as a mid-level supervisor at a large shipping company, where she earned a good salary. Karen’s employer provided terrific insurance benefits, though those benefits did not extend to Karen’s partner, even though they were offered to married spouses of employees.

One day, Alisha was involved in a car accident, in which she was seriously injured. When Karen learned that Alisha would not be able to return to her job as a dental assistant for many months, and that she would require someone to care for her for several weeks after she returned home from the hospital, she requested time off her job on family leave.

When Karen’s employer denied her request, she was shocked. She had been under the impression that the right to family leave was guaranteed under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (“FMLA”). In this example of domestic partnership recognition, it would have been important for Karen to understand that the definition of “family member” for the purposes of family leave varies by state. At the time, some states had broader definitions, including domestic partners in states that recognize such relationships, but federal law did not require them to do so.

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Labor issued a ruling extending family leave benefits to include same-sex couples who are married, ensuring they enjoy the same benefits as opposite-sex married couples. This ruling does not apply to domestic partnerships, however, which means these couples are governed by the laws of the state in which they reside.

Domestic Partnership Example of Contested Law

In 2009, Wisconsin enacted legislation recognizing domestic partnerships as a legal relationship, setting up a domestic partnership registration, and granting limited protections to same-sex couples. These benefits include, among others, the right of a domestic partner to visit his or her partner in the hospital, and the right to take family leave to care for that sick or injured partner. Wisconsin Family Action, a pro-family, anti-gay group, filed a civil lawsuit against the state, claiming that the new law violated Wisconsin’s ban on marriage equality for same-sex couples.

The trial court ruled in favor of the law, stating that the law did not violate the state’s Marriage Amendment, which banned same-sex marriage. He explained that the law recognizing domestic partner status was not identical, or even similar to the marriage relationship. This makes it a separate issue. In addition to the differences in how the law addresses the institution of marriage, and the registration of a domestic partnership, the judge pointed out that the domestic partners are afforded limited legal rights, responsibilities, and liabilities in comparison to those of married spouses.

Wisconsin Family Action appealed the trial court’s decision, and the appellate court upheld the domestic partner registration as constitutional. The matter then made its way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which confirmed that the registry is constitutional.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Bereavement Leave – Paid leave given to an employee at the time an immediate family member dies, or at the time of a family member’s funeral.
  • Community Property – All property purchased or acquired by a couple during the course of their marriage or domestic partnership that is not a gift or inheritance.
  • Competent – Having the mental capacity to participate in legal proceedings, or to engage in transactions, and to be responsible for one’s decisions.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Marital Assets – All property, financial assets, and debt acquired by the couple during the course of the marriage, regardless of who holds title to it.

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