We explain how to get one, why you might not be able to get one soon and how to end one.
Wed Nov 30 2011
Illustration: Dan Park
Getting partnered: How it's done
Two people who have been living together continuously in a "close and committed personal relationship" have been able to register as domestic partners in New York City since 1997. The domestic partner status provides three basic benefits: the ability for someone to remain in a rent-controlled apartment when their partner dies, the right to visit a partner in a city hospital or jail, and, for city workers the ability to obtain subsidized health care. Some private companies may extend benefits to domestic partners, but many do not or may have more strict criteria for defining domestic partnership.
In order to obtain a domestic partnership, both parties have to appear in person at the City Clerk's office with valid ID, fill out an affidavit and pay a $35 fee. Appointments aren't required, and you can also submit the application online (nyc.gov), though you still need to appear in person to complete the application. If you don't want to go the state-sanctioned route, couples can get a private arrangement with a lawyer, who will draw up mutual wills and health-care proxies.
An alternative to marriage: The future of the third option
Marriage in the United States has been on a sharp decline in the past ten years. According to the Census Bureau, the number of people ages 25 to 34 who are married dropped from 55 to 45 percent between 2000 and 2009, and the percentage of people who have never been married increased from 34 to 46 percent. But thanks to the passage of the marriage-equality law in New York last June, same-sex couples in our state can walk down the aisle. However, some feel the victory for gay and lesbian couples could go even further and that New York could stand to be even more European. "Now more than ever, it is important to talk about a third way, not just married and unmarried," says Alan Drexel, a lawyer who specializes in family and matrimonial issues. "It's crucial that employers provide benefits to their employees' partners—whether or not the couple has elected to marry."
Organizations like Brooklyn's Alternatives to Marriage Project (unmarried.org) are working to ensure that the domestically partnered keep their rights in the wake of marriage equality. Dorian Solot, the AtMP's co-founder, says that a domestic partnership can honor a relationship: "People like having that official certificate. For some, that says, we're not just dating, we've created something lasting."
According to Kevin Maillard, a professor of law at Syracuse University who specializes in marriage and nontraditional families, the future may hold even more possibilites for partnership, as well as greater rights. "Until about 20 years ago, [people didn't think] that other types of relationships would be taken seriously, it was only marriage," says Maillard, pointing to more recent developments in other countries as examples of what we can aspire to here. "In the Netherlands and Sweden, there are multiple approaches to marriage—including spouses who don't live together—and they all have different names. And in Alberta, there is a report 'Beyond Conjugality,' that outlines options that allow someone to register with one other person, whether that's a friend or their mother."
Domestic divorce: How to protect yourself
Domestic partnership offers more freedom than marriage, but also not as many protections. This is both good and bad if you need a domestic divorce. To break up a domestic partnership—the legal terms are dissolution or termination—one person in the couple has to fill out a form at the city clerk's office (or submit it through the website) and pay $27.
But when it comes to messy breakups, domestic partnerships don't offer much protection. Some couples opt for a cohabitation agreement, which is similar to a prenup: "This lists the expectations for the relationship, including money matters," says Maillard. He suggests that if you can't afford a lawyer, simply putting things in writing is smart, because a written agreement could suffice in court. There are templates available online that make it easy to draft an agreement of your own, and having the document witnessed and notarized makes it all the more official. Maillard also says that it helps if money matters are made clear from the beginning. In a domestic partnership, there is no legal protection in place for shared earnings, as there is in a marriage. The more you have in writing the better. "If you write down a plan together when you're feeling fair-minded and loving," says Solot, "it's likely to be a much wiser plan than what you'd come up with in the heat of an argument—or a breakup."