Learn about the benefits of domestic partnerships — and whether they may be available to you.

Despite the fact that it’s estimated only 10% of American families are made up of a working husband, a stay-at-home wife, and children, our legal and social systems still provide benefits and protections based on that model. Having been left out of this structure, lesbian and gay activists in the early 1980s sought new definitions of family and recognition of their relationships — and domestic partnerships were born.

Domestic partners are unmarried couples, of the same or opposite sex, who live together and seek economic and noneconomic benefits granted their married counterparts. In a few states, domestic partnership status is offered and regulated by the state and grants many of the rights and responsibilities of marriage — generally limited to same-sex couples. In other places, domestic partnership is offered by smaller governmental entities or businesses and carries more limited benefits. In either case, benefits can include:

  • health, dental, and vision insurance
  • sick and bereavement leave
  • accident and life insurance
  • death benefits
  • parental leave (for a child you coparent)
  • housing rights and tuition reduction (at universities), and
  • use of recreational facilities.

When a state, municipality, county, organization, private company, or university or college considers providing domestic partnership benefits, it must address several important issues: Who qualifies as a domestic partner — should heterosexual couples be covered as well as gay and lesbian couples? How will an employer identify the employee’s domestic partner — by registration? Must the couple be together a minimum number of years? Must the couple live together? Must they share expenses? Must they be financially responsible for each other? How does a couple terminate their domestic partnership? (Note that even though most domestic partnership applications ask you to state that you are financially responsible for each other’s needs, these applications are generally not considered binding contracts of support.)

In 1982, the Village Voice newspaper became the first private company to offer its employees domestic partnership benefits. The City of Berkeley was the first municipality to do so in 1984. In 1995, Vermont became the first state to extend domestic partnership benefits to its public employees. In 1997, Hawaii became the first state to extend domestic partnership benefits to all same-sex couples throughout the state. In addition, California, Connecticut, Maine, and New Jersey all now offer domestic partnership status to same-sex couples who register, with a wide variance in the type of benefits offered.

Today, a number of states and hundreds of municipalities, counties, private companies, organizations, colleges, and universities offer domestic partnership benefits. The complete list of institutions is extensive; the benefits offered by each is not, however. In some cases, all that is offered is bereavement or sick leave. In other situations, the benefits offered are comprehensive — but also costly. Often, either the employee foots the bill for his or her partner, or the company pays (when it also pays for spouses) but the employee must pay taxes on the benefits. This is because the IRS considers benefits awarded to an unmarried partner as taxable compensation.

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