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What Is a Domestic Partnership?

Updated on November 2, 2011

Separate But Equal?

Same-sex marriage is one of the most hotly debated social, political and economic issues of our time. As of this writing, nearly half a dozen states have legalized same-sex marriage. In those states, businesses must grant the exact same benefits to the same-sex spouses of their employees that they grant to opposite-sex partners. Same-sex married couples enjoy all the same legal rights, benefits and privileges to which their heterosexual counterparts have access.

However, in most states, same-sex marriage remains extralegal, meaning that while it isn't against the law to have a same-sex spouse, the law grants no recognition to same-sex partners. To help ensure equality in the workplace, the vast majority of Fortune 500 companies, and countless other smaller companies, have company policies that include the same-sex partners of their employees in the companies' benefits packages. For the most part, companies accomplish this by recognizing committed, exclusive same-sex households as domestic partnerships.

Domestic Partnerships Defined

The criteria for a household qualifying as a domestic partnership varies from state to state, and even from company to company. This is because some states have established legal precedence for what qualifies as a recognizable domestic partnership for the purposes of benefits and legal dependencies, each with their own unique criteria. In states that have no established legal precedence, companies may seek to define the criteria for domestic partnership benefits eligibility themselves.

Generally speaking, a domestic partnership is a same-sex couple which is financially and emotionally interdependent. The couple must live in the same household and must share household expenses and other responsibilities. They can't be related in any way, and can't have any other similar relationships with anyone but each other. Additionally, both people must be a US citizen or legal resident or national, or otherwise legally residing in the United States.

(It's worth noting that this last point is one of the forefront arguments for legalizing same-sex marriages: same-sex couples have no legal recourse by which they can claim their partners through immigration the way married heterosexual couples can.)

Domestic Partnerships vs Common-law Marriages

In contrast to domestic partnerships, a large number of states have laws governing common-law marriages, or heterosexual couples who haven't legally married but have a committed, established household together. States that recognize common-law marriages may still find it necessary to establish separate criteria for domestic partnerships because common-law marriage laws implicitly apply only to heterosexual couples. This can be a boon or a detriment to same-sex couples, depending on the ways in which the state laws and company policy intertwine.

In states that recognize common-law marriage among heterosexuals but have no legal precedence for same-sex domestic partnerships, companies may legally deny same-sex couples benefits.

Conversely, in a 1999 ruling, a federal judge determined that companies don't have to recognize common-law heterosexual couples under their domestic partnership recognition criteria, even if the common-law couple fits every other qualification for domestic partnership. The judge stated that because heterosexual couples can legally get married, there was no need to grant them a second type of legal recognition.

Either way, legal precedence makes it clear that a company that wishes to be inclusive to the same-sex partners of its employees must explicitly grant recognition to domestic partnerships in its company policies.

The Importance of Recognizing Domestic Partnerships

When a business recognizes domestic partnerships in its company policies, it is offering a vital economic safety net to the families of its gay, lesbian and bisexual employees. Partners of gay and lesbian employees are one of the most under-insured demographic groups in the country. A UCLA study in 2006 found that same-sex couples that shared a household were several times more likely to be uninsured or under-insured than heterosexual couples working for the same company. This means that gay and lesbian families are at a much higher risk of suffering economic catastrophes in case of an accidental illness.

Additionally, the 2010 census revealed that about 30% of all lesbian couples and 20% of all gay male couples have dependent children. These children are many more times more likely to be uninsured or under-insured than the children of heterosexual married couples. Extending domestic partnership benefits allow companies to give some of the most economically vulnerable populations in the country equal access to health care benefits for their families.

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