It’s a story we all know well. Two young lovers want to spend the rest of their lives together. Love hasn’t changed, but the options have. Couples can opt to remain unmarried and still have lifelong romances. What if, however, they still want the same legal and financial benefits of a marriage? This is where, in the state of California, a registered domestic partnership can be helpful.
Domestic Partnership Available to All
Before the state and the Supreme Court legally recognized same-sex marriage, same-sex couples had the option to register for a domestic partnership. They were granted this right in 1999. For the next 16 years, domestic partnerships were available only to same-sex couples and people over 62.
After gay marriage was legalized across the U.S. in 2015, the domestic partnership laws remained the same. Same-sex couples and senior citizens had more options for partnering than anyone else in the state, which caused some concern. Advocacy groups started to argue that just as banning the marriage of same-sex couples was unfair, outlawing domestic partnerships among heterosexual couples was unfair.
California stepped in to change its laws. In January of 2020, all consenting adults above 18 were granted the freedom to enter into a domestic partnership. All the commonsense rules that apply to marriage are still in place. Neither party can already be partnered or married to someone else; the couple cannot be close blood relatives; people cannot be forced into the partnership; etc.
Advantages of a Domestic Partnership
The state essentially recognizes domestic partnerships the same way it does a marriage. Couples can receive health benefits from their partners, for example. So, why does any of this matter? Why not just get married?
Although many of the legal advantages of a marriage extend to a domestic partnership, the couple is less legally entwined. When a couple marries, they are now legally family members. Domestic partnerships allow people to make lifelong commitments and receive benefits while remaining legally separate.
New marriages often end the benefits of a previous marriage. For example, a widowed person collecting “survivors rights” loses this benefit when they remarry. Under a domestic partnership, you can still collect many of the benefits from your previous marriage.
Domestic partnerships are easier to dissolve. If the partnership is less than five years old; there are no children involved; and the couple has no major, jointly owned assets; it can be dissolved with paperwork alone. The couple can simply file a “termination of domestic partnership” with the state and move on. (If, however, the partnership is older than five years, there are kids, and/or there are major assets, ending the legal partnership is going to require a process almost exactly like a divorce.)
These advantages can be attractive when you’re young. Young people are getting more savvy every generation, and many young people innately understand that “this might not last forever.” A domestic partnership can link a couple with less legal commitment. Even older couples can use a partnership as a “practice marriage” and see if they want to “reup the contract” to marriage in five years. Domestic partnerships give people a lot more breathing room.
Not everyone is attracted to the pressure and extravagance of a marriage. Officially adding someone to your family is a big deal. We’ve all seen everyone cheer at an engagement announcement. The dress, the party, the tuxes, the cake – some people just want to avoid the weight of all that. Many people throw a wedding party just to make the relatives happy.
There is less historical baggage around a domestic partnership, too. These days, young people pay close attention to the origins of our traditions. Atheism, agnosticism, and deconstructionist theory are on the rise, and many people see marriage as a relic of a more oppressive time. Others view it as a religious ceremony and have no interest in participating in such rituals. Partnerships can separate couples from the past burdens of a traditional marriage.
Federal Tax Benefits
Some people complain about the “marriage penalty” embedded in federal taxes. When a married couple files, separate incomes are filed as one. This can have negative effects on people who rely on benefits like disability, Medicare, and Obamacare. Many government programs are designed to help disadvantaged people in a specific income bracket. If someone who receives such benefits marries someone else with more money, it can elevate them to a higher tax bracket, causing them to lose benefits.
The federal government doesn’t recognize domestic partners as a unit, so it may be possible to keep your benefits. You file separately with your own income and claim only ½ of your partner’s income. This could keep you within your current income bracket.
Disadvantages of a Domestic Partnership
Nothing in life is perfect. Domestic partnership has its drawbacks as well. Just as a marriage can affect your federal taxes, a domestic partnership can affect your state taxes. You could be moved into a higher tax bracket and lose some of your benefits.
You could also be barred from some family-only benefits. For example, the Family and Medical Leave Act allows family members to take time off work to care for sick relatives. It is a federal law, and the U.S. government doesn’t see your partner as family. Since you will not technically be classified as a spouse, you cannot take advantage of this leave. When this issue was brought before a California judge, they upheld that interpretation of the law.
How to File for Domestic Partnership
The Secretary of State’s office has conveniently made the paperwork available online. You cannot, however, complete the process over the internet. Print out this form, fill it out, and mail it in or personally drop it off. Couples under the age of 62 will pay a $33 fee, and couples 62 or older pay $10. The extra $23 for young couples goes toward a state domestic violence curriculum.
Talk to a Lawyer
Although the process is easy, it’s wise to run your paperwork by a lawyer before filing it. A domestic partnership is still a legally binding relationship, and you want to make sure a professional looks it over, first. At the very least, an attorney can make sure you’ve done everything correctly and can help move the process along. At most, lawyers can provide good advice and help you and your new domestic partner build a secure future together.
If you’re planning to enter into a registered domestic partnership, call us first. We can double check your paperwork and your financial plan, helping to keep the process smooth for your future. You can schedule a free consultation at (310) 817-6904 or contact us online.