Domestic Partners & Unmarried Couples

Although same-sex marriage is becoming more widespread in the United States, it is not uniformly permitted throughout the states. However, in some states, same-sex couples who cannot get the full rights and responsibilities of marriage may be able to establish a domestic partnership, sometimes called a civil union. This legal status is intended to offer same-sex couples at least some of the same benefits that married couples can enjoy. In many states it has also been extended to opposite-sex couples in which one partner is at least 62 years old.

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.

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.