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

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

  • All 50 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.
  • Married couples can petition for citizenship. Domestic partners cannot petition for citizenship.
  • In a marriage, each partner automatically receives the other’s estate tax-free. Domestic partners inherit their partner’s estate, but the living partner pays taxes 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).

Domestic Partnership Definition

A domestic partnership is a committed relationship when a couple decides to live together, share specific responsibilities, bank accounts, and budget and raise children, if any, without marriage.

An agreement to live together in a romantic partnership without marriage is specified in a domestic partnership or 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 cohabitation.

The closest alternative to marriage is a domestic partnership. Its 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. Nevertheless, U.S. federal laws do not recognize domestic partnerships.

According to current law 2022, registration of a domestic partnership with the government establishes a formal legal relationship. In a domestic partnership, couples have 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 partner;
  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. Are not related in a way that would prevent legal marriage if the partnership is formed in a U.S. jurisdiction;
  8. Document compliance with these requirements; 
  9. Understand that knowingly falsifying documentation showing a domestic partnership, can lead to disciplinary action, and benefits received relating to the falsification may be reimbursable, as well as a criminal charge under 18 U.S.C. Section 1001.

What Is the Difference Between Domestic Partnership and Marriage?

Although marriage provides more advantages than domestic partnerships, you can still enjoy not being married to your partner. Here are the benefits you will get when not legalizing your status as a couple:

  • You do not pay a “marriage penalty” tax, unlike married couples;
  • You can bring up your child legally with your domestic partner;
  • You have the legal right to adopt a child of your partner born before your domestic relationship;
  • Access to family health insurance, plus dental, vision, accident, and life insurances;
  • Employment benefits, such as family leave if your partner is sick and bereavement leave;
  • Visiting your partner in hospital or prison.

According to current law 2022, not all states recognize domestic partnerships, but you can seek legal protection in these states:

  • California;
  • Colorado (cities of Boulder and Denver);
  • Connecticut (City of Hartford);
  • Hawaii;
  • Illinois (City of Chicago, Cook County, and City of Oak Park);
  • Maryland; 
  • Massachusetts;
  • Michigan (cities of Detroit, Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, and East Lansing);
  • Nevada;
  • New Jersey;
  • New Mexico (City of Albuquerque);
  • New York;
  • Oregon;
  • Pennsylvania (City of Philadelphia and Bucks County);
  • Vermont (City of Burlington and Town of Middlebury);
  • Washington, D.C.;
  • Washington (provided that one partner is not aged 62 years and above);
  • Wisconsin.
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The limits of a domestic partnership

As mentioned above, many in domestic partnerships do not enjoy the full rights and benefits married couples enjoy. It is one of the critical 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.

Benefits Available Only in Marriage

Married couples have far more advantages than domestic partners, and these include:

  • Equal parental rights for your child;
  • Legal entitlement to your partner’s insurance, Social Security, and pension benefits;
  • The legal right to inherit your partner’s estate;
  • Transferring marital assets without being taxed;
  • Equal asset division by the government in case of divorce;
  • Less complicated issues when traveling to other countries if you have a common surname, etc.


What is common law marriage?

A common law marriage is a relationship in which a couple does not have a marriage license but they introduce themselves as “married” to their families, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and these partners usually live like spouses. Common law couples can have joint bank accounts, pay bills, or share various types of property.

Two partners should meet the following criteria to be eligible for common law:

  1. Live in a state where common law marriage is legally enforceable;
  2. Live together during a significant time, e.g., 7 to 10 years;
  3. The couple’s family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances consider the couple “married”;
  4. Have joint bank accounts and pay taxes together;
  5. Not to be married officially to other people;
  6. Be of legal age.

Only a few states recognize common law marriage:

  • Colorado;
  • Iowa;
  • Kansas;
  • Montana;
  • New Hampshire;
  • Oklahoma;
  • Rhode Island;
  • South Carolina;
  • Texas;
  • Utah.

Who can register a domestic partnership?

Any couple can register their relationship as domestic partners if they meet the following requirements:

  • Both partners are 18 years of age or older;
  • Both partners are mentally competent;
  • Neither of the partners is related by blood to each other;
  • Neither of the partners is married or has a domestic partnership;
  • The couple lives together or intends to do so in a city and state where at least one partner is officially employed;
  • Both partners understand their responsibilities for each other’s well-being and monetary expenses.

What documents do I need to support my domestic partnership?

There are many cases when you need to prove that your domestic partnership is legit. For example, your employer will need your marital status information to enroll your partner in your employee benefits.

In this typical case, you should prepare the following documents:

  • Domestic partnership affidavit;
  • Municipal domestic partnership registration;
  • State domestic partnership registration;
  • State civil union license.

Conclusion: Making the Right Decisions with Your Partner

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

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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