Expanded Domestic Partnership Law Takes Effect

All California couples now have a choice once limited to same-sex unions and heterosexual couples over 62.

California initially legalized domestic partnerships in 1999. Some conservatives initially opposed the law’s expansion, citing concerns that it would erode traditional marriage. But the expected opposition did not materialize, and the expansion proposal passed almost unanimously. “We’re in a different era,” explained Unmarried America director Thomas Coleman. “A hundred years from now, domestic partnership may be the predominant lifestyle.”

To legally set up a domestic partnership, couples must file a form with the Secretary of State and pay a $10 or $33 fee.

“For the most part, a marriage and a domestic partnership are essentially the same,” observed San Francisco family law attorney Terry A. Szucsko. “But there are some important differences to consider.”

Many couples want to formalize their relationships and publicize their unions, but they do not want the religious connotations of a marriage, he explained. Other people have the opposite concern. They have been married and divorced or widowed, and for personal or religious reasons, they do not want to get remarried.

Most people over 18 are eligible. The main exceptions are people who are related in a prohibited way, legally incapable of consenting to such a relationship, or in another marriage or domestic partnership.

Generally, the same rights and responsibilities apply to both married couples and domestic partners. Domestic partners may change their names, take advantage of survivorship laws, adopt children, and own community property.

However, federal law does not recognize California domestic partnerships. So, there are some limitations, such as the inability to:

  • Sponsor a non-citizen domestic partner (a/k/a the 90-day fiance),
  • Jointly adopt a child born in a foreign country, or
  • Share federal employment and other benefits.

Additionally, domestic partners must continue to file separate federal income tax returns, since they are not legally married. That could be a good thing or a bad thing. The filing status enables domestic partners to avoid the so-called marriage penalty, but also limits their eligibility for disability and other benefits.

Dissolving a domestic partnership is also different from dissolving a marriage. Domestic partners who were together for less than five years, have no children, and meet certain financial requirements can simply file termination forms with the Secretary of State. A traditional divorce is an option in other cases. The same community property laws apply to domestic partners who undergo divorces.