Domestic Partnership vs. Marriage: The Legal Advantages and Disadvantages of Each by Brette Sember, J.D.

Domestic Partnership vs. Marriage: The Legal Advantages and Disadvantages of Each

While domestic partnerships and marriages both identify partners as a couple in a relationship, they offer drastically different rights and benefits.

by Brette Sember, J.D.
updated August 24, 2020 · 2 min read

Domestic partnerships and marriage are two ways a couple can formalize their relationship and obtain some protections under the law. The benefits and protections of domestic partnership, compared to marriage, are vastly different.

Man and woman sitting side by side eating chow mein

What Is a Domestic Partnership?

Most people have heard of domestic partnerships in the context of same-sex relationships. While the domestic partnership was originally created to provide basic legal and economic protections to same-sex couples, in some states this formalization is available to all couples who cohabitate, and in others it is made available to cohabitating couples over age 62.

Some institutions and municipalities offer domestic partner benefits.. The benefits available vary by state or municipality but may include rights such as being able to carry your domestic partner on your health or dental insurance, take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act to care for your partner, authority to visit each other in the hospital and be considered next of kin for medical decisions. They also provide some social recognition of the important relationship that exists.

How to Form a Domestic Partnership

While some couples may refer to each other as domestic partners as a way of explaining their relationship, they may not receive benefits or legal protection unless they take steps to formalize the relationship

Domestic partnerships are generally formed by signing a state registry, but if they are created privately (such as to receive employment benefits in a state that does not recognize them), private documentation can be used.

Domestic relationships are generally simpler to dissolve than marriages, requiring simple court orders or filing of documents.

Rights Domestic Partnerships Lack

While domestic partnerships allow couples to receive important benefits, there are lots of rights these relationships lack, no matter how happy the couple may personally be.

Partnerships are not universally recognized by other states or countries as marriages are, nor are they recognized by the federal government. Health insurance benefits provided to a domestic partner are considered taxable income for federal purposes. Transfers of assets or funds or inheritances between partners are also taxable. Couples must file separate federal tax returns. Partners are not entitled to receive Social Security benefits from each other and may not be beneficiaries for pensions.

Legal Benefits of Marriage

The benefits that come with marriage are so commonly understood that we often don’t think about them, but they are significant. There are more than 1,138 federal benefits created by marriage, such as the right to:

  • Inherit
  • Receive financial support from a spouse
  • The division of marital assets upon divorce;
  • Sponsor a spouse for immigration
  • Change your name to your spouse’s last name
  • Receive Social Security, veteran’s, and pension benefits through your spouse

In addition, marriage carries a heavier societal implication and people may respect the relationship more if it is a marriage.

When evaluating marriage and domestic partnership, note that a domestic partnership is an excellent way for a couple to create some bonds with each other and make their lives easier (particularly with health benefits), however, these relationships lack many of the important benefits of marriage. On the other hand, a domestic partnership is easy to enter into and easy to end, with very few strings attached.

Deciding which option is right for you depends on your needs and the level of commitment you are seeking.

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Brette Sember, J.D.

About the Author

Brette Sember, J.D.

Brette Sember, J.D. practiced law in New York, including divorce, mediation, family law, adoption, probate and estates, … Read more