Introduction to Ending a Domestic Partnership or Civil Union

Just like marriages, domestic partnerships and civil unions can and do come to an end. The process for ending a domestic partnership or civil union has similarities to a standard divorce proceeding, but there are some variations on that process as well.

Domestic Partnerships and Civil Unions Generally

Many people do not realize that marriage is not the only way to profess your love for a significant other AND receive benefits from the state government. It is important to note that only eight states currently recognize domestic partnerships. Those states include, California, Oregon, Washington, Main, Hawaii, District of Columbia, Nevada, and Wisconsin.[i] While domestic partnerships and civil unions do not provide as many benefits as a marriage does, there are still a lot of benefits available for those entering into domestic partnerships and civil unions. The recognition of domestic partnerships and civil unions vary from state to state, while marriage is not recognized by all fifty states and is now available for same-sex couples. Federal law does not recognize domestic partnerships or civil unions.[ii] For this reason, the benefits that domestic partnerships and civil unions receive are state based only.[iii]

Domestic partnerships are entitled to some, but not all, of the legal benefits that married couples receive. Some of the common benefits of domestic partnership include:

  • The ability to get coverage on a family health insurance policy;
  • The right to family leave for a sick partner;
  • The right to bereavement leave; and
  • Visitation rights in hospitals and jails.[iv]

Civil unions are very similar to domestic partnerships. Civil unions were initially sought after by same-sex couples before same-sex marriage was legalized in the fifty states.[v] Couples in a civil union can receive just as many benefits as couples in a domestic partnership, but again, that will vary from state to state on what benefits are available. Currently, only six states currently recognize civil unions. Those states include, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.[vi]

Ending a Domestic Partnership or Civil Union

The legal protections afforded to couples in a domestic partnership going through a separation of any kind are not as broad as what is afforded to married couples going through a divorce.[vii] Just like when a marriage is finalized through divorce, couples going to a separation of a domestic partnership will be returned to the legal status they were before entering into the domestic partnership.[viii] The benefits and obligations under the law afforded to couples in a domestic partnership will cease when the partnership is over.

The process for which a domestic partnership ends will also vary from state to state, since only eight states recognize domestic partnerships. When same sex marriage was not legalized it the United States, only states that recognized same sex marriage were legally able to perform the divorce of a same sex couple. In a domestic partnership situation, the process of ending a domestic partnership is generally laid out in the initial domestic partnership agreement that was filed with the state.[ix] Each state law will vary regarding the precise method, time, and manner that the domestic partnership dissolution, but all of that information will be laid out in the domestic partnership agreement.

In many cases of ending a domestic partnership, the courts are left to decide how to divide finances, property, and family matters which include handling child custody matters.[x] This is especially true in instances where many of these specifications have not been laid out, or the separation is taking place in a state where domestic partnership has not been legalized.[xi] Even more, some states will generally recognize domestic partnership that were created in their own state, but often times those states will not recognize outside state domestic partnership – even if the domestic partnership was created in another state where domestic partnership is legal.[xii]

Ending a civil union will generally follow all of the same procedures as ending the domestic partnership. There may be even more state restrictions on ending a civil union, which is why it is the best idea to dissolve the civil union, or even domestic partnership in many instances, in the state where it was created.

Property Division in Ending Domestic Partnership and Civil Unions

Just like a dissolution of a marriage, a dissolution of a domestic partnership will involve property division. Generally speaking, just like in a marriage, property that was acquired prior to the registration of the domestic partnership will be considered separate property and will not be subject to division with the other partner.[xiii] This will also be true of property that was obtained as a gift or through an inheritance.[xiv] For all property that was acquired during the domestic partnership, depending on what state the couple is in and what is stated in the registration documents, the court may divide the property any number of ways.[xv] When making the decision of how to divide property, the court will consider the length of the domestic partnership and what the nature of the property is.[xvi] The court may divide the property in one of the following ways:

  • Distribute property unevenly (based on the equity interest to each partner)
  • Distribute property evenly (50/50)
  • Partition the property as it the parties were joint tenants

Spousal Maintenance and Child Custody Issues in Domestic Partnership and Civil Unions

Spousal maintenance may be awarded in the dissolution of the domestic partnership, just as spousal  maintenance may be awarded in dissolution of marriage.[xvii] Maintenance is a payment that one party makes to the other party to provide financial support after the domestic partnership or marriage ends. Maintenance is not automatically awarded.[xviii] The court will take the following factors into consideration when making the decision whether one party will be ordered to pay the other:

  • Length of the domestic partnership
  • Financial situation of the parties, and the other party’s ability to pay
  • Time it will take for the party asking for maintenance to get education or training
  • Standard of living during the domestic partnership
  • Age and health of the party asking for maintenance

In domestic partnerships that involve biological or adopted children, a court will look at several factors when determining the child custody, child support, and child visitation. Those factors include:

  • Which parent the children will live with the majority of the time (or each parent half of the time)
  • How much time the children will spend with the other parent (“visitation”)
  • Who will make decisions about the children’s schooling, medical care and other issues
  • How the parents will resolve disagreements about the children in the future.
  • Partners may also choose to establish their own parenting plan in which to show the court before final determination.

Conclusion to Ending a Domestic Partnership or Civil Union

Ending a domestic partnership or civil union is very similar to ending a marriage. There will be variations on the process based upon what state the domestic partnership was registered in and what state the dissolution will take place.

Resources Consulted 

[i] See Same Sex Marriages, Civil Unions, and Domestic Partnership FindLaw (Accessed January 19, 2017) http://family.findlaw.com/marriage/same-sex-marriage-civil-unions-and-domestic-partnerships.html

[ii] See What is a Domestic Partnership FindLaw (Accessed January 19, 2017) http://family.findlaw.com/domestic-partnerships/what-is-a-domestic-partnership.html

[iii] Id.

[iv] Id.

[v] See Same Sex Marriages, Civil Unions, and Domestic Partnership FindLaw (Accessed January 19, 2017) http://family.findlaw.com/marriage/same-sex-marriage-civil-unions-and-domestic-partnerships.html

[vi] See Same Sex Marriages, Civil Unions, and Domestic Partnership FindLaw (Accessed January 19, 2017) http://family.findlaw.com/marriage/same-sex-marriage-civil-unions-and-domestic-partnerships.html

[vii] See Ending a Domestic Partnership FindLaw (Accessed January 19, 2017) http://family.findlaw.com/domestic-partnerships/ending-a-domestic-partnership.html

[viii] Id.

[ix] Id.

[x] Id.

[xi] Id.

[xii] Id.

[xiii] See Ending a Domestic Partnership FindLaw (Accessed January 19, 2017) http://family.findlaw.com/domestic-partnerships/ending-a-domestic-partnership.html

[xiv] Id.

[xv] Id.

[xvi] Id.

[xvii] Id.

[xviii] Id.