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

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

by Brette Sember, J.D., September 2014

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 vs. marriage are vastly different however.

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 (such as employers) and municipalities offer domestic partner benefits even if they are not recognized by the state. 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 Get Domesticated

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. Signing a state or city registry may not automatically grant you any rights because some registries exist to allow couples to have a ceremony or provide proof to an employer, but do not offer any rights at all. Note that some couples refer to each other as domestic partners as a way of explaining their relationship, however they receive none of the benefits or protections unless they have taken steps to formalize the relationship. Domestic relationships are generally simpler to dissolve than marriages, requiring simple court orders or filing of documents.

Results of the Lack of Marital Bliss

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 and as such, 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.

To Say ‘I Do’ or Not

The benefits that come with marriage are so commonly understood that we often don’t think about them, but a marriage creates legal changes of huge significance. There are more than 1138 federal benefits created by marriage, including rights to inherit; to financial support from a spouse; to division of marital assets upon divorce; to sponsoring a spouse for immigration; to changing your name to your spouse’s last name; to receive Social Security, veteran’s, and pension benefits through your spouse; and the fact that children born during marriage are automatically the child of both spouses. In addition, marriage carries a heavier societal implication and people may respect the relationship more if it is a marriage.

When evaluating marriage vs. 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 what your needs are and what level of commitment you are seeking.

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