Generally speaking, there are two kinds of domestic partner systems:
Domestic Partner Workplace Benefits
These limited benefits depend on benevolence of employers and come with potential liabilities. The status is not portable, like legal marriage.
Domestic Partnership Registration
This legal status varies according to the government issuing the registration. Benefits range from no benefits to (in a few states) nearly equal to the scope of legal marriage. The status may not be recognized by other governments.
The movement toward domestic partnership benefits in the workplace is rooted in the egalitarian principal that equal work warrants equal pay, including employment benefits. For many employees, those benefits can amount to more than 25 percent of their total compensation. So when employers extend benefits to employees with opposite-sex spouses, the same benefits should go to employees with a same-sex partner.
Domestic partner benefits owes its existence to the fact that America is the only industrialized nation in the world that does not have universal health care, and the fact that same-sex couples have been forbidden legal marriage. Domestic partner benefits are a stop-gap measure.
The State of Hawaii created a domestic partner registration (called Reciprocal Beneficiaries) in 1997 to fend off their supreme court after it declared that the constitution demanded legal marriage for same-sex couples. In 2000, the State of Vermont created Civil Unions rather (than full legal marriage) to answer that state’s supreme court call for constitutional equality. Vermont since offered legal marriage in April 2009.
So, historically, fighting for legal marriage has sometimes produced a second-class unequal status known collectively as domestic partnership registration.
The first private business to offer benefits was the Village Voice Newspaper in 1982. The first Canadian Province was Quebec in 1982. The first municipality in the U.S. was Berkeley, California in 1984.
When domestic partnership benefits were first offered, many only included same-sex couples. That has changed significantly. The majority of plans these days are offered to both same-sex as well as opposite-sex couples, which is, again, a matter of fairness.
A virtual wave of domestic partner benefits had been instigated by San Francisco. In May 1997, the city and county of San Francisco required all businesses contracting with them to offer benefits to same-sex partners, if they offered them to married couples. This has created not only benefits within hundreds of companies, but awakened insurance businesses, which have been slow to respond to carry out the benefits.
The San Francisco model has been replicated in Los Angeles, New York City, Oakland, Seattle, and Tumwater (Washington).
Since the very first domestic partner benefits were offered by Berkeley California, in 1984, the radical right-wing has been very busy with lawsuits in the public sector — and with copious boycotts in the private sector — in order to destroy any benefits for same-sex couples and their children.
The current (November 2010) iteration of this sentiment lives in the National Organization for Marriage, the nation’s leading anti-gay group. While their stated mission is to stop same-sex marriage, they are now actively working to defeat the passage of the Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act (SB 1716) in Illinois. This bill would allow same-sex couples only to enter into a civil union.
In spite of the radical right-wing attacks on domestic partner recognition, many businesses have seen it as a way of attracting and keeping the brightest and most loyal workers. Fifty-seven percent of Fortune 500 companies offer health care benefits to same-sex domestic partners, according to the Human Rights Campaign in their October 26, 2010 release.
Before November 2004, four states had anti-marriage constitutions, which had been used to legally argue against recognizing any non-marriage status, such as job benefits and Civil Unions for same-sex couples. The November 2004 election brought 11 more anti-marriage state constitutional amendments. Nine of the new amendments specifically include anti-domestic partner language.
[Please see our article: Legislative Reactions to Suits for Same-Sex Marriage]
In those states that have anti-marriage amendments, either directly, or by implication, any Civil Union or partnership status, such as workplace benefits, could easily be legally challenged.
• Workplace Benefits Plans
____ Plus Side
- Often employers offer insurance as well as “no-cost” benefits such as sick or bereavement leave to care for a partner or a partner’s children. For some employees, it could represent health insurance they would otherwise be unable to get.
- These benefits do represent a small social recognition of same-sex relationships. And instituting them can help create a dialogue on orientation and other discrimination issues in the workplace.
- These benefit plans are proof of a growing recognition by the business world of the importance of attracting and keeping qualified, highly-skilled employees who happen to be gay or lesbian.
____ Minus Side
- Very few people directly benefit, usually less than one percent of the work force. (Unmarried, opposite-sex couples participate at two or three times that percentage when they are offered benefits.)
- The benefits are not portable. They could be lost by changing jobs.
- Partner benefits are subject to state income tax, unlike benefits for married couples.
Note: As of November 2009, California is the only state which does not tax partner benefits.
- Partner benefits are subject to federal income tax, unlike benefits for married couples.
- Many companies require unmarried employees to sign an affidavit before receiving benefits. Often, these documents contain statements never required of married partners, such as sharing financial obligations. Married couples can have prenuptial agreements which separate their funds and ownership. Further, some affidavits demand that the couple have lived together for six months-to-a-year before being eligible. Married couples only need to know each other long enough to sign a marriage license.
[See Anatomy of a Domestic Partnership Affidavit for our take on affidavits.]
- Unlike legal marriage, domestic partnership has little legal precedent and future court cases could be disastrous. For instance, on the basis of an employee’s domestic partnership affidavit, an individual could be held legally responsible for a previous partner’s current debts, whether or not they were jointly incurred. If that happens, we will have secured one of the major responsibilities of marriage with only a few of the benefits.
- Working for modest benefits can take years of meetings, reports and negotiations. And nearly every employee group and corporation must go through the same long process.
• Domestic Partnership Registrations
These documents offered by cities, counties, and some states — for fees ranging from $15-$73 — usually do not carry any legal weight. Some states, like California and Washington, offer extensive legal and financial benefits through their registrations.
It was once thought that registrations would encourage private businesses to offer benefits. It does not, however, appear to have been the instigating agent.
[See Requesting Benefits: How to Go About Getting Them.]
There are hundreds of laws that are triggered by legal marriage. In most locations, Domestic Partner Registrations prompts very few benefits, if any, and outside of that jurisdiction, they are legally entirely worthless.
The most a registration generally does is to allow you access if your partner is in prison or in a hospital. Usually they don’t even allow you to make medical decisions, should your partner be incapacitated. To find out if there are any benefits whatever, you need to contact the issuing license department and inquire.
It is possible that a registration could be used against you to take away government subsidies or benefits, should an agency claim the registration makes you responsible for your partner’s welfare. It could also potentially be used against you if your were to break up. A suit from a former partner or former partner’s debtors could claim you responsible for medical bills, for instance.
Sometimes same-sex couples so desire recognition that they will sign a domestic partner registration form just “to get close to legal marriage.” However, domestic partnership registrations are nothing whatever like legal marriage. And unlike legal marriage, they have such little history that their legal status is uncertain.
Besides workplace benefits, some businesses offer discounts to household members once restricted only to a “spouse.” The AAA Motor Clubs in a few states offer a second membership at reduced fees.
[See How the AAA Motor Club of Washington Came to Offer Second Member Discounts to Domestic Partners.]
Avis Rent-A-Car does not charge a “second driver” fee for unmarried partners who declare they are a couple.
There are also steps cities have taken to protect domestic partners. For example, Washington, D.C., requires certain businesses to provide employees unpaid leave to care for sick family members, including domestic partners. The district’s law also gives tax breaks to businesses that provide health insurance to the domestic partners of employees.
While New Mexico has no registration process, their statewide law appears to allow a domestic partner to have hospital entry and medical decision-making ability (Uniform Health Care Decisions Act (1995) Section 5, Paragraph B). As a backup, lawyers there still recommend medical power of attorney for all unmarried couples.
Shorewood Hills (Wisconsin), Seattle, and other cities allow domestic partners a family discount for user fees at various city facilities. In August 1994, the Swiss Federated Railways (Switzerland) announced reduced fares, and spouse passes for same-sex partners who live together.
Other forms of domestic partner recognition goes beyond the workplace or minor public accommodations. For example, New York State covers domestic partners under family rent control law, and Oakland, California, has eliminated a property transfer tax for domestic partners.
• Partnership Ramifications
- Because legal marriage is available in Massachusetts, as of May 29, 2004 Boston-area employers, such as Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and Babson College, announced that they would discontinue domestic partner benefits by 2005.
[See Massachusetts Offers Legal Marriage]
Employers such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital, Fidelity Investments, Gillette Co, and EMC Corp., announced that they will maintain the benefits.
Harvard University said that they plan to maintain them, but would revisit the issue in the next two years.
- On December 3, 2004, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm revoked benefits slated to begin for state workers on October 1, 2005. The basis for the unilateral breaking of the negotiated contracts was the November 2005 voter-approved amendment to the state constitution that banned same-sex marriage and “similar unions.” The amendment also ended health care and other benefits for the same-sex partners of public employees in Michigan.
On March 16, 2005, Attorney General Mike Cox issued an opinion to a question about benefits for Kalamazoo city employees. In the absence of a contrary opinion from a court, the attorney general’s interpretation of a law is generally binding on state agencies. An anonymous official in the Attorney General’s Office opined that the same legal theories would apply to public schools and universities which offer same-sex benefits.
- In 2004, Ohio passed an extreme anti-marriage, anti-domestic partner constitutional amendment. It not only affects the ability of same-sex and unmarried, opposite-sex couples to get benefits, it also immediately affected opposite-sex protections against domestic violence.
[See our article: Legislative Reactions to Suits for Same-Sex Marriage]
- On March 24, 2005, Virginia finally allowed insurers and businesses to extend medical insurance coverage to same-sex couples. It was the last state to prohibit businesses that are not self-insured from offering coverage to unrelated children, grandchildren, elderly relatives, friends and other members of a household. The legislation was pushed by a coalition of business and gay rights organizations. It becomes law on July 1, 2005.
While domestic partnership benefits are a worthy goal, they don’t assure full equality in the workplace. Also, they don’t begin to address the many other aspects of inequality — child custody, hospital visitation, inheritance, immigration, etc. — that would be addressed by legal same-sex marriage.
To be worth the considerable labors we expend in order to gain benefits, we need to get more than the meager cash, insurance or minor social recognition. Having tracked domestic partnership benefits since 1987, Partners Task Force found the results of these plans to be disappointing. While some partners or children are able to get insurance otherwise unavailable, the reality for most couples is that the benefits are limited and could have negative tax consequences. Plus, many couples both work and have their own benefit plans.
Since their origin in Berkeley, domestic partner benefits have proved to be fragile. Some have been taken away by cost-cutting or right-wing corporate boards. Many municipalities have been sued by radical right-wing organizations — such Pat Robertson’s Virginia-based American Center for Law and Justice — in mean-spirited attempts to destroy benefits, which sometimes apply to a same-sex couple’s children.
Overall, domestic partnership benefits appear to be a crude, porous bandage for an exclusionary benefits system based largely on legal marriage.
Workplace Benefit Provider Lists|
in the U.S., Canada, and Selected Other Countries
We began our domestic partner benefit provider lists in September 1987. They have been culled from news reports, information received directly from companies or their employees, and lists developed by many gay groups. Because some sources may be subject to error, benefit programs frequently change, and not all companies announce their benefits plans, our lists need to be considered a starting point.|
Because this information is frequently updated — the copyright date on each article reflects the latest additions. We have the latest and most extensive benefits listings on the Internet.
Governmental Legal Registration
Governments that offer Full Legal Marriage
South Africa (2005)
New Zealand (2013)
New Zealand (2013)
(England, Wales, Scotland) (2013)
US States & Territories
New Hampshire (2009)
District of Columbia (2009)
New York (2011)
Rhode Island (2013)
New Jersey (2013)
New Mexico (2013)
Michigan (2014) - stayed pending legal challenge
Arkansas (2014) - stayed pending legal challenge
West Virginia (2014)
Kansas (2014) - stayed pending legal challenge
North Carolina (2014)
South Carolina (2014)
U.S. Supreme Court (June 26, 2015):
Ruling: All U.S. States must now
allow same-sex couples the
freedom of legal marriage.
Native American Tribes|
Coquille Tribe, Oregon (2009)
Mashantucket Pequot, Connecticut (2011)
Suquamish Tribe, Washington (2011)
Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Washington (2013)
Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, Minnesota (2013)
Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, Michigan (2013)
Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, Michigan (2013)
Santa Ysabel Tribe, California (2013)
Confederated Tribes of the Colville Nation, Washington (2013)
Cheyenne, Oklahoma (2013)
Arapaho, Oklahoma (2013)
Leech Lake Tribal Court, Minnesota (2013)
Puyallup Tribe, Washington (2914)
Wind River Indian Reservation, Wyoming (2014)
Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, Michigan, (2014)
Colville Confederated Tribes, Washington (2014)
Central Council of Tlingit, Alaska (2015)
Haida Indian Tribes, Alaska (2015)
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