Domestic Partnership Law
DOMESTIC PARTNERSHIP LAW
The area of law that deals with the rights of unmarried adults who choose to live together in the same manner as a married couple but who are not married.
Domestic partnership law is evolving rapidly, in part because more individuals are choosing to identify themselves as domestic partners. Although any two adults living together in a loving relationship may be called partners, the term is most frequently used to describe same-sex couples.
In the last decade of the twentieth century and continuing into the twenty-first, a number of city and county governments enacted domestic partnership laws, including Seattle, New York City, and Broward County, Florida. In 1999, California passed a state domestic partnership law that provided a number of protections that formerly had been offered only to married couples. These protections include the right to inherit from a partner's estate; the right to make medical decisions for an incapacitated partner; the right to use sick leave to care for a partner; the right to obtain health insurance through a partner; and the right to adopt a partner's child as a step-parent. Domestic partners in California may obtain these benefits by registering with the state.
Although domestic partnership law is intended to provide benefits to partners, it still represents uncharted territory and is far from comprehensive or complete. Using the California law as an example, a domestic partner is defined as a committed member of a same-sex couple; heterosexual couples who cohabit may not register as domestic partners. The rationale is that heterosexual couples in a committed relationship have the option of marriage, an option that is not open to same-sex couples. The only exception for heterosexual couples is when one partner is age 62 or older, because frequently senior citizens who cohabit run the risk of losing part of their social security benefits if they marry.
A more problematic issue for domestic partners is the fact that their partnership is generally not recognized outside of their jurisdiction. Thus, their domestic partnership rights are not binding if they should move to a community that has no such laws of its own. In fact, domestic partners who relocate to a new community that does have protective laws are advised to reregister in their new home in order to eliminate any ambiguity.