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What You Need To Know About California’s New Domestic Partnership Law

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Andrew Nixon/Capital Public Radio
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Legislation to allow all Californians to register as domestic partners instead of marrying was signed into law by Gov. Newsom Tuesday, July 30, 2019.

Heterosexual couples in California now have an alternative to marriage.

Starting in January, all couples are allowed to apply for domestic partnership. Until now, this option was only available to same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples over age 62. 

Since California same-sex couples gained the right to marry in 2013, they’ve had a choice between matrimony and domestic partnership. Some advocacy groups argue that all couples should have that freedom.

Thomas Coleman, director of a national organization called Unmarried America, says some people have been pushing for this since same-sex domestic partnership became recognized in California in 1999.

He said there was initially push-back from conservative and religious groups, who felt a domestic partnership option for opposite-sex couples would undermine the institution of marriage. But the new California law passed without any formal opposition.

“We’re in a different era,” Coleman said. “A hundred years from now, domestic partnership may be the predominant lifestyle.”

There are a few reasons couples might opt for domestic partnership, such as avoiding the religious or patriarchal connotations historically associated with marriage, or not wanting to marry twice after being widowed or divorced. About half of Americans over 18 were married in 2017, but that rate has fallen 8 percentage points since 1990, according to the Pew Research Center.

“Marriage is still the brand name that people want,” Coleman said. “But younger people don’t have that same urge to marry, or certainly not to marry young.”

If you’re considering entering into a domestic partnership in California, here’s what you need to know:

There Are Exemptions

Under the new California law, anyone can enter into a domestic partnership except:

  • People who are related by blood in a way that would prevent them from marrying 
  • People under 18 years of age who don’t have a special court order
  • People who are not capable of consenting to a domestic partnership
  • People who are already married or in a domestic partnership with someone else (people who are in a domestic partnership with each other can later get married without dissolving the partnership)

The Benefits Are The Same — Almost
Opposite-sex domestic partners in California will have all the same state-granted legal rights as same-sex domestic partners. Examples include:

  • Either person being able to take their domestic partner’s last name, or a name combining the two individuals’ last names 
  • Protections for the surviving domestic partner should one partner die
  • The legal rights and obligations related to raising a child born during the domestic partnership
  • The ability to adopt a child previously born to a domestic partner
  • The ability to add a domestic partner to state-administered health benefits
  • The right to own community property

But California’s domestic partnerships are not federally recognized, so partners may have a difficult time:

  • Sponsoring a non-citizen partner applying for citizenship
  • Jointly adopting a child from another country
  • Sharing some federal employment benefits (Note: a worker who chooses to add a domestic partner to a benefits plan may be taxed on the value of those benefits as reported income)
  • Accessing rights and protections afforded to married couples when traveling in other states

Taxes Might Get Tricky
Californians entering into a domestic partnership are still seen as single people in the eyes of the federal government, regardless of whether they’re a same-sex or opposite-sex couple. That means they file a joint tax return on the state level, but two separate tax returns for federal, according to Sacramento family law attorney Hal Bartholomew.

“Under federal tax law, they file as two single people, but they each would claim half of the income of each party,” he said. “Two single returns generally are better than a joint tax return.”

This is one way for domestic partners to evade what’s often called the “marriage penalty,” said Janet Holtzblatt with a nonprofit research organization called the Urban Institute.

“When two people got married, their combined income would generally push them into a higher tax bracket,” she said, adding that Congress has taken steps in recent years to lessen this burden for married couples.

But the state does consider domestic partners as two people with a joint income, the same way married people are categorized. That means a domestic partner receiving state disability aid or other income-based benefits may become ineligible for those benefits if their new domestic partner earns a higher wage.

For widows who’ve been previously married and have survivors’ rights to a former spouse’s assets, entering a domestic partnership, rather than a new marriage, may allow them to keep those benefits. 

Holtzblatt’s advice for domestic partners come filing season? “Go get a tax lawyer.”

There Are Options For Splitting Up

Not all domestic partners have to divorce. Those who are partnered for fewer than five years, don’t have any children and meet other financial and property requirements can fill out a “termination of domestic partnership” form with the Secretary of State. Couples who don’t meet that criteria go through a similar legal process to married couples who are getting divorced. Unless a prenuptial agreement is in place, any property acquired while the couple was legally partnered, including real estate, is considered “community property,” and is typically split down the middle. There are exceptions, such as gifts given between partners or personal inheritances.

Here’s How To Sign Up

Under the new California law, you can become domestic partners by filling out an online form through the Secretary of State’s office. These forms can be mailed in, or delivered to specified physical locations. 

If you’re under age 62, expect to pay $33. That includes a $23 charge mandated by the law for “development and support of a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender curriculum for training workshops on domestic violence.” Couples where one or both domestic partners are age 62 or older are exempt from this additional fee, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, and only need to pay $10.

Copyright 2019 Capital Public Radio