People in serious, long-term relationships often hope to formalize the partnership through marriage to enjoy the commitment and financial benefits of marrying. While marriage is perhaps the most common form of a permanent and legal union, another option is a domestic partnership.
Here, learn about the differences between a domestic partnership and marriage, and receive advice regarding which relationship type may be a better option for you.
Domestic partnerships emerged as an alternative to marriage in the 1980s to give same-sex couples an option to form a legal union that afforded them some of the same benefits of marriage.
Vermont was the first state to offer domestic partnerships. One significant difference between domestic partnerships and marriage is that domestic partnerships are not federally recognized.
Some states continue to allow for domestic partnerships, which are relationships with the following features:
The adults in the relationship, whether same-sex or opposite-sex, are committed to each other and reside together.
The couple is not married but is in a relationship like a marriage.
Often, domestic partners are financially tied together, and they may even have children together.
If you’re wondering how to enter a domestic partnership, you must register the relationship. This can be done through an employer or a local or state government. You’ll likely have to fill out an application, sign it in front of a witness, and have it notarized.
The application is then filed, which comes with a fee. Keep in mind that not all states allow domestic partnerships, so you will have to conduct additional research on your state laws to determine how to be domestic partners with your significant other.
Some attorneys and legal websites allow partners to complete domestic partnership agreements using templates or forms online. This allows you to formalize your relationship and put your intentions in writing, offering you the benefits of a domestic partnership.
Key differences in marriage vs. Domestic partnership rights
The rights of domestic partnerships are different from those of marriage.
For example, the main difference between a domestic partnership vs. marriage is that marriage tends to offer more legal rights and protections to couples than a domestic partnership does. Consider the key differences below and some ways that domestic partnership and marriage are comparable.
Benefits of domestic partnership and marriage
There are some benefits that domestic partnership and marriage have in common. One of the advantages of a domestic partnership is that some people view it as an alternative to marriage. This is because, like married couples, those in a domestic partnership can generally access their partner’s employer-provided health insurance benefits.
Domestic partners also have rights related to child care and custody, including being able to adopt a child born to their domestic spouse before the marriage and the right to raise a child born during the partnership.
According to the domestic partnership benefits law, domestic partners have the right to bereavement leave if their partner passes away, and they can take sick leave to care for the partner.
The domestic partnership also provides for hospital and visitation rights and allows partners to make medical decisions for each other. You may notice that all of these rights are those that domestic partnerships have in common with marriage.
The legal benefits of each
While there are some benefits that marriages and domestic partnerships have, there are also some differences in rights between domestic partnership vs. marriage.
You may be surprised to learn that some benefits are unique to domestic partnerships. Still, as you might guess, marriages tend to offer more advantages than domestic partnerships in most cases.
Benefits available in domestic partnerships
One of the rights of domestic partnership that is unique to this type of relationship is the avoidance of the marriage tax penalty, which places married couples in a higher tax bracket.
This means domestic partners may save money on taxes compared to married couples. That being said, since domestic partnerships are not federally recognized, domestic partners file their taxes separately and may miss out on some tax breaks given to married couples, which could cancel out the benefit of avoiding the marriage tax penalty.
Benefits available only in marriage
One of the benefits of marriage is that it tends to bring more legal rights than a domestic partnership does. Unlike domestic partners, married couples can inherit their spouse’s estate in the case of death and receive veterans, retirement, and Social Security benefits from their spouse.
Finally, another difference between domestic partnership vs. marriage, which favors marriage, is that married couples can transfer an unlimited amount of assets to each other without a tax penalty.
Domestic Partnership vs. Marriage: What’s the Financial Difference
In summary, there is quite a bit of financial difference between a domestic partnership and marriage. While both domestic partners and married couples can benefit financially from being able to access a partner’s employer-provided health insurance benefits, there are some major financial differences, including the following, between the two types of unions:
Married couples incur a tax penalty by being placed into a higher tax bracket based on marriage, whereas domestic partners do not experience this penalty.
In the case of marriage, one spouse can inherit the other’s assets in the case of the death of one spouse, whereas this is not permitted in a domestic partnership.
Married couples can receive retirement, Veterans, and Social Security benefits from their spouse, but domestic partnerships do not offer such financial perks.
Marriage offers more benefits related to assets, including the right to transfer an unlimited amount of assets to a spouse tax-free and the right to divide assets in a divorce.
The limits of a domestic partnership
As seen above, the benefits of domestic partnership vs. marriage show that domestic partnerships have financial limitations.
Another consideration is that not all states recognize domestic partnerships, so depending upon where you live, you may not be able to get one. Some people may not regard domestic partnerships as being as serious as marriage, which means people in domestic partnerships may face some stigma compared to married ones.
Given the limitations of domestic partnership, the relationship between domestic partners may not be recognized if the partners cross state lines. The domestic partnership only offers protections in the city or state where the domestic partnership was completed.
There may also be some instances in which insurance companies do not treat domestic partnerships the same as marriages, so there can be limits on the coverage offered for health insurance, and out-of-pocket costs may be higher.
FAQs: Pros and cons of domestic partnership
If you’re looking for answers to the question, “What is a state-registered domestic partnership?” you may also have some of the frequently asked questions below.
Is domestic partnership better than marriage?
The answer to this question will depend upon your specific views and preferences, as well as your and your partner’s goals. If you seek an alternative to marriage, a domestic partnership provides some of the benefits of marriage without requiring an expensive wedding.
On the other hand, marriage may be better than domestic partnership because it offers more significant financial and legal protections and will be recognized regardless of location. Marriages will be recognized across the United States, whereas some states do not allow for domestic partnerships.
Can opposite-sex couples get domestic partnerships?
Keep in mind that domestic partnerships began to allow same-sex couples to have some of the benefits that married couples enjoy, but since the Defense of Marriage Act was overturned, these couples can now marry.
Even though domestic partnerships were intended to support the interests of same-sex couples, heterosexual couples may be able to enter a domestic partnership in some cases.
Whether or not heterosexual couples can get a domestic partnership depends upon domestic partnership laws in their state of residence.
Some states only allow domestic partnerships for same-sex couples, whereas other states have stipulations allowing opposite-sex couples to engage in a domestic partnership. In some instances, heterosexual couples must be 62 or older to get a domestic partnership.
While domestic partnership does offer some of the same benefits of marriage, it is not the same thing as a marriage. Marriages are recognized in all states, whereas domestic partnerships are not offered in every state.
Depending upon your state’s laws, you may not even be able to get a domestic partnership in your state. As a domestic partner, you will not have all the same rights to your partner’s Social Security, retirement, and veteran’s benefits, and you will not be entitled to the same assets if your partner dies.
Check out this video for a better understanding of domestic partnerships:
Can you get married after a domestic partnership?
While you can choose to marry your domestic partner later on, there may be legal implications involved.
For instance, if you signed any agreement related to the domestic partnership, case law suggests that the agreements made during the domestic partnership are not necessarily resolved just because a partner married. You may desire to consult with an attorney to determine the best course of action for getting married after a domestic partnership.
Alternatively, some may wonder, “Can you have a domestic partnership and be married?” The answer to this depends upon the meaning of the question. If you intend to ask if domestic partners can later marry, the answer is yes.
On the other hand, if you’re asking if someone can have a domestic partnership with one person and be married to someone else, the legal answer is no. You cannot enter a domestic partnership if you are married to someone else, nor can you marry someone when you’re in a domestic partnership with another person.
Do you have to get a divorce to dissolve a domestic partnership?
While the specific procedures and laws will vary by state, you must file some legal action to end your domestic partnership since these unions are legally recognized.
In some states, you may have to file a statement indicating that you intend to terminate the domestic partnerships, whereas other states may require you to file a divorce or annulment.
What states allow domestic partnership?
California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia (D.C.), Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington recognize domestic partnerships, but the exact laws vary by state.
In addition, the state of Michigan does not recognize a domestic partnership. Still, the cities of Ann Arbor, Detroit, East Lansing, and Kalamazoo allow citizens to register domestic partnerships within the municipality.
Should I choose domestic partnership or marriage: Making the right decisions with your partner
Ultimately, whether you choose a domestic partnership or marriage depends upon your and your partner’s needs. Sometimes, a domestic partnership may be more practical.
For instance, perhaps you and your significant other are at a place where you know you want to be together permanently, but you aren’t financially prepared for a wedding.
In this case, you may decide to join your lives, legally and financially, by getting a domestic partnership. This allows you to enjoy some of the benefits of marriage without shelling out thousands on a wedding.
Another consideration that may make a domestic partnership a practical option for you is if you’d like to be able to visit your partner in the hospital or help make medical decisions but aren’t yet able to marry.
You may not be financially prepared for a wedding, but perhaps you’ve been in a long-term relationship with your partner and already live together and share bills. Despite this long-term commitment, there is a chance that a hospital may not allow you to visit them if they only allow kin to visit.
In this case, it may be beneficial to register as domestic partners so you can enjoy this benefit. A domestic partnership can also protect you if you must take time off work to care for your partner while they’re ill or recovering from surgery.
On the other hand, if you want to enjoy the full range of tax benefits and financial advantages that come with a marriage, you may decide that a domestic partnership doesn’t make sense for you.
Since domestic partnership is not the same as a marriage, you may wish to marry, even if it comes with the obligation to obtain a marriage license and have a wedding, because you’ll enjoy greater financial benefits and generally more financial and legal protections than you would in a domestic partnership.
You may consider consulting with an attorney in your state if you are unsure whether marriage or domestic partnership is a better option for you.
In summary, the answer to the question, “What is a registered domestic partnership?” is that such a relationship is a legally recognized union that offers some of the same benefits of marriage.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the general recommendation for domestic partnership laws is that the couple must live together, agree to be responsible for each other’s joint living expenses, and be at least 18 years of age.
Domestic partnerships should require other stipulations, such as forbidding either party to be married to or in a domestic partnership or civil union with someone else. The couple must legally register the domestic partnership.
For those who want to legally join with their partner and enjoy some of the financial benefits of a formally recognized relationship, domestic partnerships offer an alternative to marriage and allow couples to enjoy benefits like hospital visitation rights and some financial perks.
On the other hand, if you want all the benefits of marriage, the differences between domestic partnership vs. marriage may mean that marriage is a better option for you, especially since marriages are recognized in all states, and domestic partnerships are not.
While the advice herein provides a general overview of domestic partnership vs. marriage, the reality is that laws can change frequently and vary from state to state. Given this fact, the advice in this piece should not take the place of legal advice from an attorney who can provide you with up-to-date, specific advice about domestic partnership laws in your state.
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.
Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker with a master's degree in social work from The Ohio State University, and she is in the process of completing her dissertation for a Doctorate of Philosophy in Psychology. She has worked in the social work field for 8 years and is currently a professor at Mount Vernon Nazarene University. She writes website content about mental health, addiction, and fitness.
Licensed as both a social worker through Ohio Board of Counselors, Social Workers, and Marriage/Family Therapists and school social worker through Ohio Department of Education as well as a personal trainer through American Council on Exercise.