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Domestic Partnerships  
 
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The term "domestic partnership" refers to a non-marital legal arrangement in which two individuals are treated as one legal unit for certain purposes. It has become the generic term for a variety of forms of legal and institutional recognition of same-sex couples that fall short of same-sex marriage.

In several European countries and states such as California, Oregon, and Nevada, domestic partners, after registering their relationship with the state and affirming their enduring commitment to each other, are treated in a manner identical with or similar to the treatment of married opposite-sex couples. Most domestic partnerships, however, are not so expansive.

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State-wide domestic partnerships differ from Civil Unions largely in that Civil Unions are typically seen as a separate institution but one parallel to marriage. Consequently, civil unions typically require ceremonies, while domestic partnerships do not. Nevertheless, the two forms are similar enough as to sometimes be used interchangeably, often with civil unions seen as a particular kind of domestic partnership.

Forms of Domestic Partnership in the United States

In the United States, there are generally two kinds of domestic partnership.

The first is an arrangement that results in benefits, such as medical insurance, bereavement leave, joint housing, or family discounts, from one of the partners' employers or other entities such as academic institutions or commercial enterprises.

These arrangements are decided on individually by each company or other entity, and may require the individuals to register with a domestic partnership registry or sign an affidavit agreeing to joint financial responsibility and swearing to have lived together for up to a year prior to the domestic partnership agreement. These requirements are not imposed on married couples. Additionally, the financial value of any benefits granted by the company is subject to taxation, which is also not true for married couples.

A number of local and state governments offer at least some domestic partnership benefits to their employees, as does the federal government for civil service employees.

The second kind of domestic partnership in the United States is conferred by states or localities upon individuals. These registries grant a variety of privileges, often including the ability to visit a partner in the hospital if he or she is incapacitated, but usually fall far short of marriage. For instance, medical decision-making is often not granted, nor are the benefits applicable outside the jurisdiction where they are granted.

Some localities grant more expansive benefits, such as eliminating property transfer taxes or requiring local businesses to provide medical benefits for partners. This type of domestic partnership is usually granted by a town, city, or county, but some states have created state-wide domestic partnerships as well. These include California, New Jersey, Oregon, Hawaii, Nevada, Colorada, Wisconsin, and Washington.

The California domestic partnership act, first passed in 2003 and implemented in 2005, has gradually been strengthened to include all the rights and responsibilities of marriage. The California Supreme Court in a 2005 case, Koebke v. Bernardo Heights Country Club, ruled that domestic partners must be treated as equivalent to heterosexual spouses in the provision of accommodations and other rights.

However, in the historic ruling of May 15, 2008, In re Marriages, the California Supreme Court, in striking down the state's ban on same-sex marriage, declared that domestic partnerships were not sufficient and ordered the state to permit same-sex couples to marry. Proposition 8, voted on in November 2008, restored the ban on same-sex marriage. In upholding Proposition 8, the California Supreme Court declared that domestic partnerships must be equal to marriage in every respect except the name.

Limitations

No matter how expansive the domestic partnership offered, states can not grant immigration rights, the ability to collect social security benefits after the death of a partner, the ability to file jointly for federal taxes, and hundreds of other federal benefits routinely granted to opposite-sex married couples, such as property transfers free of federal taxes, certain procedures at federal court trials, veterans' pensions, and agricultural loans.

Additionally, domestic partnerships usually can not be transported to other states and dissolving them often involves lengthy residencies in the state where they were granted.

Indeed, many areas that grant domestic partnerships do not even have a procedure established for dissolving them. Without being able to dissolve a domestic partnership, individuals can be left unable to register a new partner for benefits. Moreover, if a domestic partnership becomes violent or coercive, the lack of easy escape options can also exacerbate the abuse.

Another problem with domestic partnerships is that the requirement for joint financial responsibility can leave a partner liable for the other partner's finances without an equitable distribution of joint finances or child custody.

In some instances, domestic partnership policies apply only to same-sex couples. However, some policies also apply to unmarried heterosexual couples, particularly to elderly ones who may wish to have certain benefits without getting into complicated tax situations. For instance, California's laws apply to all same-sex couples over the age of eighteen, but include heterosexual couples only if they are over 62.

History of Domestic Partnerships

The first domestic partnership benefits in the United States were granted by the Village Voice, an independent local newspaper located in New York City, in 1982. West Hollywood and Berkeley, California were the first governmental units to offer domestic partnerships, both in 1985.

Since then, according to the Human Rights Campaign, organizations offering domestic partner benefits have ballooned. As of 2003, ten state and over 160 local governments offer domestic partnership plans. Over five thousand private companies, not-for-profit organizations, and unions offer them, including 198 of the Fortune 500. Additionally, 187 colleges and universities, including both elite and local institutions, offer the benefits.

Many companies, particularly large ones, have found that offering domestic partner benefits to their employees has been economically useful for them. The availability of these benefits can increase the desirability of the company to potential employees, increase productivity and retention for existing employees, and make the company attractive to glbtq customers.

Some social organizations, professional societies, recreation facilities, and service providers (such as the American Automobile Association) have begun including domestic partners in the list of family members eligible for family discounts.

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