How to Start and End a Domestic Partnership

Marriage can be a complicated process, and it isn’t for everyone. Yet sometimes, couples want the benefits of marriage without the rigmarole that comes with getting married. In some states, couples have an alternative to marriage: domestic partnership.

Similarities and differences exist between these two types of legal unions, and not everyone is as familiar with the ins and outs of domestic partnership as they are with marriage. Before you commit to a domestic partnership, you need to understand what this type of committed relationship is and what the process for starting and ending a domestic partnership looks like.

What is a domestic partnership?

A domestic partnership is a broad term used for any type of intimate relationship in which two unmarried individuals maintain a residence together. Although domestic partnerships are often associated with same-sex couples who wanted to document their relationship before the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of same-sex marriages during 2015’s Obergefell v. Hodges trial, these unions can occur between same-sex couples or opposite-sex couples.

Couples have the choice to register their domestic partnership in states that allow it. Often, it’s the equivalent of a common-law marriage. Currently, five states and one territory (California, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, and District of Columbia) allow couples to register a domestic partnership, while four states (Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, and New Jersey) allow civil unions, which are the equivalent of a domestic partnership. All other states do not offer the option for any type of registered union outside of marriage.

In a registered domestic partnership, each person in the relationship receives many benefits, such as:

  • Health and life insurance benefits
  • Car insurance discounts
  • Visitation rights in the case of hospitalizations or incarceration
  • Medical and financial decision-making rights
  • Death benefits and inheritance rights
  • Parental and adoption rights
  • Family and bereavement leave

Unfortunately, unregistered domestic partnerships don’t always provide these same benefits. For example, an employer might allow an unregistered domestic partner to add their partner to health insurance, but the employer isn’t required to do so. Similarly, some companies’ bereavement leave policies may not cover unregistered domestic partners.

How does domestic partnership differ from marriage?

In most cases, a domestic partnership provides couples with similar rights to any married couple. These relationships often grant couples rights to each other’s insurance and assets, and they also protect each partner’s right to their shared home. In fact, most states that allow registered domestic partnerships or civil unions consider these relationships to be a legal equivalent to marriage. 

However, since domestic partnership laws vary from state to state, the federal government does not recognize domestic partnerships or civil unions. This means domestic partners cannot file taxes as a married couple. Domestic partners also can’t file as head of household in situations where their domestic partner is their only dependent.

Furthermore, domestic partnerships do not qualify couples for any federal programs geared toward married couples. These benefits include social security and COBRA.

Domestic partnerships also make it difficult for couples to transfer assets to each other. This means that individuals who receive a certain amount of money from their domestic partner could be required to pay a gift tax on this money, as it would count as a “financial gift” instead of a simple transfer of assets.

Of course, the most important difference is that domestic partnerships are not recognized in every state. This means that couples who relocate or start working for a company based in a state that doesn’t recognize domestic partnerships could face disruptions in insurance coverage and other benefits due to this lack of universal recognition.

How do you register a domestic partnership?

Before you register your domestic partnership, you will first need to verify that your relationship meets the criteria for a domestic partnership. While the rules may vary between states, you generally must:

  • Both be at least 18 years old
  • Live together
  • Not be married or in a domestic partnership with another individual
  • Not be related in a way that bans marriage in the state where you register
  • Both be mentally competent enough to agree to a domestic partnership

The domestic partnership registration process varies from state to state. However, you typically file an application with your county or city clerk’s office and pay the registration fee. Both partners will need to appear together to do this, bring valid photo identification, and provide proof of residence. Once the application is completed, you will both sign the domestic partnership agreement in front of a notary public, who will also sign off and make the document official.

How do you end a domestic partnership?

Once your domestic partnership is official, it is a binding legal contract just like a marriage license. This means you can’t simply break up or move out to end the relationship. Instead, you will need to follow your state’s requirements to end the partnership.

The process to end a domestic partnership varies slightly between states. In some states, such as Colorado and Oregon, couples can file a form, typically called a Notice of Termination, Dissolution of Partnership, or Request for Termination. These forms essentially expedite the separation process and do not require court proceedings. 

Other times, states require couples in a domestic partnership to go to court to dissolve the relationship, much like divorce proceedings in a marriage. 

Furthermore, some states do a mixture of both simple dissolutions and elaborate court proceedings depending on the specifics of the partnership, such as the duration of the relationship and whether the partners share custody of children. 

Even if your state doesn’t require you to hire a lawyer or take your partnership dissolution to court, it may be worthwhile to consult an attorney before filing your termination notice. A legal professional can help you make sure you’ve completed all of the necessary paperwork to dissolve your partnership per your state’s guidelines, and they can help you navigate other complicated aspects of your separation, such as an equitable division of assets and custody schedules (if you have children). 

Dissolving a domestic partnership in California

California residents who decide to dissolve their domestic partnership may also want to consult an attorney, as they could be entitled to domestic partner support, which is similar to the spousal support offered in divorce cases. Depending on the circumstances regarding the dissolution and each partner’s earning potential, the court could decide to award long-term partner support as part of the final dissolution decree. Furthermore, there are situations where temporary domestic partner support can be awarded while the case is still ongoing, which can be helpful for couples who decide to discontinue living together before the end of their proceedings. 

Potential pitfalls of separation

Unfortunately, some partners may hide assets during the separation process to try to avoid paying additional partner support or leave the relationship with more assets than their partner. This is an area where a lawyer could help you verify income and look for places where finances don’t add up so you can make sure everything is accurate and you receive what you deserve.

Child support

Regardless of what state you end your partnership in, child support will be offered based on the state’s child support payment structure if you share children. However, child support pay structures vary greatly from state to state, so you’ll need to consult your state’s specific guidelines to determine your child support requirements.

Where to find help

Navigating the dissolution process for a domestic partnership is rarely easy. As you start the process, you may find that you need extra help, and that’s okay! Hello Divorce is here to help. We can support you in this process whether it’s through our free online resources or a la carte mediation and legal advice services. 


Divorce Specialists
After spending years in toxic and broken family law courts, and seeing that no one wins when “lawyer up,” we knew there was an opportunity to do and be better. We created Hello Divorce to the divorce process easier, affordable, and completely online. Our guiding principles are to make sure both spouses feel heard, supported, and set up for success as they move into their next chapter in life.