While same-sex marriage is now legal throughout the United States, following the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, civil unions and domestic partnerships still exist as alternatives to marriage in some states. (Formerly, they were options for same-sex couples who were not legally permitted to marry but wanted at least some of the benefits of marriage.) Civil unions and domestic partnerships confer many of the same rights as marriage, and sometimes they confer virtually all of the same rights, depending on the state.
The range of benefits that may be available to domestic partners varies from state to state but often includes health, dental, vision, and life insurance; sick leave; housing rights; and the use of recreational facilities. Public employers such as local and state agencies, as well as private companies and non-profit organizations may offer these benefits. Sometimes an employer will require that the couple have lived together for a certain minimum period, but other times the couple does not need to have lived together at all. Financial responsibility is another factor that an employer may evaluate, such as whether each member of the partnership shares the other’s expenses.
Unmarried Couples Outside Domestic Partnerships
If you have lived with someone without marrying them or establishing a domestic partnership, you generally cannot gain access to the rights and responsibilities of marriage. When a couple ends this type of relationship, neither person will be entitled to spousal support unless a court finds that an implied contract existed between them. This reasoning was the basis for one notable California decision, but it is not yet widely established. Barring a specific arrangement to the contrary, neither person in the relationship can inherit the other person’s property when he or she dies, and neither person will be liable for the debts of the other unless he or she agrees to assume them.
While unmarried couples do not benefit from laws that confer certain rights to married couples, such as the automatic transfer of assets to a surviving spouse, they are free to craft estate planning documents securing their partner’s rights.
Also, the property division process after divorce will not apply when unmarried couples part ways. This means that you may want to consider devising an agreement with your partner to protect your property rights. If you make a legally valid contract, it can be enforced by a court even though it is not part of a formal divorce proceeding.
On the other hand, unmarried couples can ensure that they are considered the legal parents of any children whom they have together. Listing the names of both parents on a child’s birth certificate will achieve this goal, although an unmarried father may need to sign a certificate acknowledging his paternity. The child will be eligible for government benefits, and he or she can bear the last name of either parent. If the relationship ends, each parent will have an equal right to spend time with the child and make important decisions regarding the child, unless a court rules that one parent should not have that right.
An unmarried couple also can adopt a child together, although they may face more obstacles from adoption agencies than a married couple would. Using the best interests of the child as a pretext, some agencies may be biased against letting a child grow up with people who are not married or planning to marry. If one person in the couple has biological children from a previous marriage, the other person may be able to adopt those children as his or her own. This process would be more straightforward than if a couple is adopting a child to whom neither of them is related by blood.