Domestic Partnership vs. Marriage: What’s the Difference?

Marriage and domestic partnerships have different rights under the law, as married couples have rights that domestic partnerships do not have. For example:

  • All fifty states regard marriage as legally recognized. The state of Pennsylvania recognizes domestic partnerships only in certain cities.
  • Family law does not consider domestic partners to be family. Domestic partners would not be regarded as a family under any law that explicitly deals with family, such as estate planning laws.
  • Petitioning for citizenship can be done by married couples. Relationships with domestic partners cannot be used to petition for citizenship.
  • In a marriage, each partner automatically receives the other’s estate tax-free. Domestic partners inherit the estate of their partner, but they are taxed first.
  • You may run into a problem with domestic partnerships that you wouldn’t have with marriage: Federal law does not recognize this type of partnership (referred to as a civil union in some states). 

What is a Domestic Partnership?

An agreement to live together in a romantic partnership without marriage is known as a Domestic Partnership Agreement or a Cohabitation Agreement. A cohabitation agreement is more than just a romance contract. It defines each person’s rights and obligations regarding financial expenses and assets acquired during the cohabitation period.

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The closest alternative to marriage is the domestic partnership. Their creation came about in the early 1980s when gay and lesbian couples couldn’t yet get married legally. By doing this, they could enjoy most of the rights and privileges of married couples.

Domestic Partnership Definition

Registration of a domestic partnership with the government establishes a formal legal relationship. In a domestic partnership, couples are entitled to some of the rights and responsibilities associated with marriage. A property settlement or death benefit may include pension benefits or assets divided following a separation or death. Relationships of this type generally give the couple more rights than common-law marriages but not all marriage rights.

What Does Domestic Partner Mean?

Domestic partnerships refer to a relationship between adults, in which the partners:

  1. Indefinitely intend to remain one another’s only domestic partners;
  2. Hold a common residence and intend to keep it (or would maintain a common residence but for an assignment abroad or another employment-related, financial, or similar obstacle);
  3. Have reached the age of 18 and are mentally competent to enter into a domestic partnership contract;
  4. Are jointly responsible for a significant amount of each other’s financial obligations;
  5. Do not have a civil union or are not married to anyone else;
  6. Do not have any other domestic partners;
  7. If the partnership is formed in a U.S. jurisdiction, they are not related in a way that would prevent legal marriage;
  8. Document compliance with these requirements; and
  9. Understand that knowing falsifying documentation showing a domestic partnership, then disciplinary action may be taken and benefits received relating to the falsification may be reimbursable, as well as a criminal charge under 18 U.S.C. § 1001.

What is the Difference Between Domestic Partnership and Marriage?

One of the main differences between a domestic partnership and a marriage is the scope of rights granted. Married couples do not have to pay gift or estate taxes on assets transferred to each other. Domestic partners are not exempt from these taxes.

Some states, counties, and countries do not recognize domestic partnerships. Thus, domestic partners are not afforded the same protections as married couples. Domestic partners need to consider issues related to insurance, pension benefits, and social security benefits.

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The Limits of a Domestic Partnership

As mentioned above, many people in domestic partnerships do not enjoy the full rights and benefits that married couples enjoy. This is one of the key issues that drove the gay marriage debate for many years in many ways.

Domestic partners may not have the same rights as married spouses under specific insurance policies. Your partner’s lack of insurance coverage will result in lower insurance coverage and higher out-of-pocket expenses for medical or dental care.

Taxes are filed separately rather than jointly in a domestic partnership. Because of this, you may be unable to take advantage of the deductions and various tax savings that married couples receive.

Your new partner can adopt the child you have from a previous marriage or partnership. Your child’s biological parent from a prior relationship must surrender their parental rights for this to occur.

Conclusion: Making the Right Decisions with Your Partner

You should carefully consider whether you want to marry or enter a domestic partnership before you take the plunge. You can understand all the benefits and drawbacks of your decision when working with a family law attorney. In addition to assisting with short-term financial planning, this can be extremely helpful for long-term financial planning as well.

Article by Megan Thompson

Megan Thompson is a legal writer at Lawrina. Megan writes about different law practice areas, legal innovations, and shares her knowledge about her legal practice. As a graduate of the American University's Washington College of Law she is an expert of law in Lawrina's team and has a slight editing touch to all content that is published on the website.

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