What Is a Domestic Partnership, and How Does It Differ from Marriage?

Many people associate the term "domestic partnership" with same-sex couples. But domestic partnerships can take several different forms – assuming you live in a state that recognizes domestic partnership as an alternative to marriage.

Domestic partnership, civil union, and marriage

Today, same-sex spouses have the same federally protected benefits and rights as heterosexual couples. However, domestic partnerships and civil unions, as succinctly different legal relationships, are still available in some jurisdictions, and some couples prefer these alternative partnerships for various reasons. 

Civil unions and domestic partnerships are state-regulated and sometimes locally regulated, with the laws and requirements of each jurisdiction varying widely. However, these partnerships typically don’t have the same rights as married partners. 

Same-sex marriage

Before the U.S. Supreme Court conveyed federal marital rights to same-sex couples, some states recognized their own form of same-sex marriage. But if these married couples moved to different locales, they would be subject to vastly different laws in whatever jurisdiction they moved to. 

Fortunately, the federal recognition of same-sex marriage ensures that the benefits and rights of same-sex spouses are now consistent and protected throughout the country. 

What is the difference between civil unions and domestic partnerships?

Before federal recognition of same-sex marriage, civil unions and domestic partnerships were considered the only legal alternatives to traditional marriage in some states. 

Civil unions, first legalized in Vermont, gave same-sex couples state benefits and protections similar to heterosexual couples. But not all states recognized them, and rights and benefits differed depending on the jurisdiction. Most states have stopped offering civil unions, and the existing ones were converted into legal marriages. Today, Colorado, Illinois, Vermont, Hawaii, and New Jersey are the only states that still offer civil unions for those who want them.

Like civil unions, domestic partnerships were originally intended to give same-sex couples essential legal and economic rights because there was no legal same-sex marriage. While marriage is now legal for all couples in the U.S., some still favor domestic partnerships. 

Domestic partnerships can exist at the state or local level, and rights and benefits will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Couples seeking a domestic partnership will often need to register with the local or state government and meet certain requirements.

Domestic partnership according to the federal government

Two unmarried people who live together and have an intimate relationship may be considered domestic partners. However, the relationship is not recognized by the federal government. This means domestic partners cannot take advantage of joint tax filings and other federal benefits.

Because the federal government and government agencies don’t uniformly recognize domestic partnerships, there can be some significant legal and financial downsides compared to marriage. Depending on the laws of the state where they live, domestic partners may have some rights similar to a legally married spouse, but not all, especially as they concern government benefits. 

In most cases, the following statements are true of domestic partners:

  • They can't file tax returns jointly.
  • One member of a partnership can’t collect Social Security benefits when the other dies.
  • They automatically inherit from their partner’s estate. Those who are provided for through their partner’s estate planning efforts may be required to pay inheritance tax.
  • They may not have access to health insurance benefits through their partner’s policy. If they do, the value of that benefit may be considered taxable income.
  • They may not have the right to make important medical or financial decisions for their partner or have access to important information needed to make those decisions.
  • They cannot be considered for immigration benefits.

Domestic partnership according to state government

Despite the federal government’s lack of recognition, several states have laws in place that recognize domestic partnerships. The states that offer state-wide laws of this kind are California, Washington, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Wisconsin, Maine, Nevada, New Jersey, and Oregon.

Other states, like Texas and Arizona, have municipalities and counties with registries for domestic partnerships. Since state or local governments regulate the laws for these partnerships, couples may receive many of the same benefits as married individuals … or not.

Notably, domestic partnership laws are not uniform across the states that recognize them. In fact, individual counties within a state may offer different benefits to domestic partners. 

For example, California state law extends the same benefits, rights, and protections that married couples enjoy to all registered domestic partnerships. Meanwhile, the state of Michigan doesn’t recognize these unions at all, though some cities within the state (Ann Arbor, Detroit, East Lansing, and Kalamazoo) do recognize them.

What about states that don’t recognize domestic partnerships?

Domestic partnership rights and benefits differ widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. If you are part of a domestic partnership, it’s critical to understand your jurisdiction’s laws as they apply to your relationship. 

If you’ve moved to a state that doesn’t follow the same laws or doesn’t recognize domestic partnerships, it’s important to consult with a local family lawyer to see what kind of recourse or options you have.

Without formal recognition of your partnership, you and your partner would be considered unmarried individuals. And unmarried, cohabitating couples aren’t afforded the same legal rights as married spouses or registered domestic partners. Without these protections, unmarried couples can experience many financial and legal challenges, especially if they decide to break up. This can affect their finances, their ability to enforce child custody and support, and the fair division of their property.

In some cases, unmarried couples who choose to live together create contracts that set out each partner’s rights, similar to a prenuptial agreement. But these agreements aren’t always legally enforceable.

What constitutes a domestic partnership?

The lack of federal guidelines for domestic partnerships leaves specific laws up to each state. Here are a few examples.

Domestic partnerships in California

Under California state law, a domestic partnership involves two adults who share their lives in an intimate, committed relationship. While the law does not specifically state whether the couple must live together, it does say neither partner can be in a marriage or domestic partnership with another person. It also stipulates that both partners must be 18 or older. The couple cannot be related by blood, and both must consent to the partnership. 

Couples in California who want to enter a registered domestic partnership must do so through the Secretary of State. Although they could also register with their city government, they will not receive all the benefits provided by the state unless they register at the state level. 

Domestic partnerships in Colorado

Colorado uses the term “civil union” instead of domestic partnership. However, its laws regarding civil unions are nearly identical to California’s laws, extending the rights and privileges of married couples to domestic partners in a registered civil union. 

Under Colorado law, partners must be at least 18 years old and must live together. They cannot be in another union or marriage, and they must be registered as partners through the county clerk’s office in the county where they live. 

Domestic partnerships in Texas

In Texas, domestic partnerships are not recognized at the state level, but they are recognized in most major cities (including Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio) along with the counties of El Paso, Bexar, and Travis.

Domestic partnerships in Utah

Utah currently does not recognize domestic partnerships, civil unions, or common law marriages in any form. 

Benefits of domestic partnership vs. marriage

In most states that recognize domestic partnerships, couples receive the same benefits as those who are married. This often includes health insurance and life insurance benefits, health care and financial decision rights, and parental rights

Domestic partnerships also entail some unique benefits. For example, since federal law does not recognize domestic partnerships, these couples can avoid the marital tax consequences they would incur if their incomes were combined. This can be helpful in partnerships where each person earns just under a certain amount and in partnerships where one person owns a business.

Furthermore, domestic partners who wish to break up do not always undergo the same legal separation process as married couples. This means the partners may avoid issues like spousal support/alimony or the division of community property in the case of separation.

Conversely, marriage conveys important, consistent legal protections for married spouses throughout the country and the world, although state laws can vary. While requirements for marriage can be more stringent than a domestic partnership, marriage offers critical federal rights and benefits for spouses who aren’t covered by domestic partnerships, including the ability to file taxes jointly, benefit from a spouse’s Social Security or veteran’s benefits, and sponsor a spouse for purposes of immigration. 

Although ending a domestic partnership can be much less complicated than ending a marriage, the terms of a divorce settlement can be legally enforced if one partner doesn’t abide by it. 

Benefits of Domestic Partnership

Benefits of Marriage

Avoids some of the legal issues of divorce, such as spousal support and property division in the event of a breakup

Federal recognition and protection of the relationship

Partners avoid the “marriage tax” penalty

Rights to a spouse’s federal benefits such as Social Security and veteran’s benefits

Most of the same legal obligations and rights as marriage concerning raising and providing for their children 

Rights to a spouse’s pension benefits

The right to adopt the partner’s child

The ability to transfer unlimited assets to a spouse tax-free

Can sometimes receive coverage on a partner’s health insurance policy

The ability to receive financial support from a spouse after divorce

Rights to bereavement or family leave for a sick or deceased partner

The enforcement of fair marital property division during divorce

Visitation rights in hospital or jail situations

Sponsorship of a spouse for immigration purposes

Good for an older adult who may lose a former spouse’s benefits if they remarry

Automatic inheritance rights

Registering a domestic partnership

The requirements for registering a domestic partnership vary by state. In most cases, the couple must apply with their county or city clerk and pay a small registration fee to make the domestic partnership "official."

Generally, partners who want to register for a domestic partnership must adhere to the following requirements:

  • They must be at least 18 years old.
  • They cannot be married to (or the partner of) someone else. 
  • They must live together and intend to do so permanently.
  • They must not be closely related by blood, similar to the requirement for marriage in that state.
  • They must be mentally competent to consent to a partnership.
  • They must fulfill any residency requirements for registration.
  • They must mutually agree to be responsible for each other’s expenses and common welfare.

The following are typically needed to have a domestic partner registered:

  • An application or affidavit, completed as required
  • An acceptable form of photo identification
  • Proof that the two of you share a home 
  • Proof that you reside in your stated county or city 

In addition to the required documents, neither partner can be married or in a registered domestic partnership with anyone else. In fact, some states require individuals to be legally separated or divorced from a former partner for at least six months before entering into a domestic partnership with a new partner.

Ending a domestic partnership

Once you register your domestic partnership, it is a legally binding contract. Therefore, you can’t just walk away if you and your partner decide to break up. You must dissolve the partnership per your state’s dissolution of domestic partnership policy.

The termination of a domestic partnership can be tricky to navigate in some states. Importantly, you don’t want to miss any steps along the way or make a mistake that could cost you time and money. 

Hello Divorce does not just help clients with the traditional divorce process. We also support couples who seek a dissolution of their domestic partnership. If this sounds like you, take time to peruse our free online resources, and schedule your free 15-minute intro call to start your dissolution on a sure footing.


Domestic Partnership Registration. California Legislative Information.
Frequently Asked Questions. California Secretary of State Shirley N. Weber, Ph.D.

Divorce Content Specialist
Communication, Mediation, Relationships, Divorce Insights
A content writer and editor for several digital publications and businesses, including Make Tech Easier, How-To Geek, and Clean Email.