Know Your Rights: Domestic Partnership

Let’s take a moment and imagine the unimaginable. What would you do if your partner were in a non-fatal car accident or was seriously injured at work? If you’re in a long-term, committed relationship, chances are this won’t be the first time you contemplate what you would do if your significant other were in an accident that put them in the hospital. Perhaps you, like me, immediately conjure up images of yourself at their bedside doing everything you can to help them become well. It’s a horrible thing to consider, but the reality is that it happens.

What might not immediately occur to you, however, is that in the eyes of the law and therefore the hospital you are no more than a friend, regardless of how much time you have been coupled up. As such, you are not entitled to any of the access a family member would be, including extended visiting hours or the right to make medical decisions on your significant other’s behalf. Regardless of whether you have been together for years upon years or whether you have had numerous conversations about how you wouldn’t leave each others’ sides in the event of the unthinkable, chances are the hospital staff would shoo you away pretty quickly.

But, there is an option that many have tapped into. Before the rise of marriage equality legislation, cities across the country put in place Domestic Partnership Registries, which provide some legal protections for unmarried couples who cohabitate. Originally set up to pacify homosexual couples as the groundswell grew around legalizing same-sex marriage, many of these registries have since expanded to include heterosexual, unmarried couples as well.

What Does Domestic Partnership Entail?

Domestic partnership laws vary from city to city, but in most cases include things like hospital visitation, medical decision making, prison visits, and other city benefits given to family members. In some cases private companies or universities will include domestic partner benefits the same way they do spouses, such as insurance or tuition discounts. However, the rights granted are often only applicable in the jurisdiction in which the couple is registered, as some places do not honor domestic partnership registries and others grant varying benefits.

Requirements for registry also differ from city to city. Most often it includes a trip to City Hall to sign a form stating that the couple in question does cohabitate and consider each other family. The cost hovers around $40, and the whole thing takes a very short amount of time. When my partner and I registered, it took 10 minutes on a Thursday morning before work. No prior approval or paperwork is needed, although if interested consult your local City Hall for any particular requirements. Couples can also cancel the partnership, often for a fee, if they break up. The partnership is automatically ended if the couple marries.

Is Domestic Partnership For You?

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If you and your significant other have been living together for a period of time that you both feel comfortable with, it may be a good idea to look into domestic partnership policy in your own city. Since partnerships are canceled automatically in the event of marriage, it’s not a prohibitive relationship step. If you plan on being together for a long time or are even engaged but planning on putting the wedding off, it is at least worth considering. Although the rights granted are often slim, it’s a layer of protection that doesn’t come automatically with time. If nothing else, it’s an insurance policy in case something happens to one of you.

As with all relationship decisions, it’s important to have a frank discussion with your significant other before deciding to register. Consider it an opportunity to make sure you’re still on the same page and that both of you are happy with the speed at which the relationship is moving. If you both decide that registering as domestic partners is as close to marriage as you want to get, talk about meeting with a lawyer at some point to draft documents granting further protections, such as power of attorney, and to learn about any common law policies in your state.

And hey! Just because it isn’t a full blown marriage doesn’t mean it’s not worth celebrating as a relationship milestone! Registering as domestic partners is a great excuse to get a bit dressed up and have drinks at that slightly-fancier-than-usual place you’ve both been eyeing for the past few months.

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