Marriage isn’t for everyone. Whether you’ve experienced an unpleasant divorce early and never wanted to repeat it, or whether marriage was just never your thing -- your reasons are your own. However, marriage can often provide protection, rights, and benefits a partner might not otherwise receive. So what happens when you’re happily partnered up and never tied the knot? Will your domestic partner get all the things you want them to have, or will it all go to next of kin?
Domestic partners are generally defined as a long term couple (of any gender or sexual orientation) that resides together permanently, share financial responsibilities, and might be raising a family or caring for depedants. Specific rights for domestic partners vary depending on where you live; some states call domestic partnerships “civil union.” Domestic partnership isn’t recognized by the federal government, so you need to look into the specific laws and protections offered in your state. When you’re legally recognized as a domestic partnership you’re able to receive benefits and have many rights similar to married couples. Here are the two primary questions we hear the most:
- What steps can you take to make sure your domestic partner is protected and given the rights they deserve?
- What are your rights regarding the other person’s stuff in the event of a medical emergency or death?
The answer to those questions: The best way to offer protection is to include your domestic partners in your estate planning, which means you have to do some estate planning, whether you want to or not.
We’re going to break down how your domestic partner can make decisions on your behalf and inherit your assets. When you’ve shared a large part of your life with someone, they should rest easy knowing they’ll be able to receive what they deserve in case of an emergency or after you’re gone.
What proof do you need to document your domestic partnership?
There are a few ways to gather documents needed to prove your domestic partnership. Primary IDs (like your driver's license or passport) should use the same address, joint residential lease or joint mortgage, bank accounts in both names, credit cards in both names, mentioning each other as beneficiaries in your Wills, giving your partner Power Of Attorney, and naming them as your Health Care Proxy.
The last three documents – POA, Proxy, Will – can be the most vital. Your POA and Health Care Proxy (which also often includes a Living Will and the combo is known as an Advance Directive) benefit you when you’re alive. They put your partner in control of your financial affairs and medical decisions. A Will allocates assets or guardianship after you’re gone. You can name anyone you want in these documents (family, friends, professionals like an estate attorney or financial advisor); if any family members come out of the woodwork to try and take over your medical care or money, these documents can put your partner in the driver’s seat.
Naming a Health Care Proxy is free and easy, and we have all the forms for each state here. As for a Will and POA, you can create them online, but we suggest speaking with an estate attorney to make sure it’s as ironclad as possible. If there’s a chance this can be contested in court, and it’s a realistic possibility if your partner is estranged from family and has assets, property, or young children, you’ll want an attorney in your corner so everyone knows these documents are completely legit. It might cost a little more but it’ll be worth it in the long run.
How can you have your domestic partnership recognized by law?
To make things more official you should register your domestic partnership in the eyes of the law. Rules will depend upon the state in which you live. For example in California, you’ll need to fill out forms, pay fees, and receive a certified copy of the Declaration of Domestic Partnerships. In states where partnerships are recognized by law, like California, you can expect the same rights, protections and benefits as those received by married spouses.
Most services are handled online, or at the state capital offices. Detailed information can be found online at the offices of the Secretary of State. In fact, you’ll be required to terminate your domestic partnership should the relationship end.
Of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, less than 10 recognize civil unions (and the District of Columbia is one of them), so there’s a good chance you live in a state where it’s not recognized. This makes getting your medical directives, legal documents, and beneficiary designations in order all the more vital.
What are domestic partners' rights in the event of a medical emergency?
Specific rights will vary from state to state, and if your state recognizes domestic partnerships you’ll have the same rights as married couples. In this case you’ll be able to share health insurance. You should however consider naming your domestic partner as your Health Care Proxy, which we mentioned above, to grant them the right to handle your medical decisions and care should you not be able to handle them yourself.
Are domestic partners entitled to Social Security benefits?
No, since domestic partnership isn’t recognized by the federal government a domestic partner will not receive these benefits. Married couples in a similar situation would benefit as the survivor gets a monthly benefit as well as a possible one-time death benefit payment.
How can you ensure your domestic partner inherits your assets?
Make sure to understand the details of how the state you live in recognizes your domestic partnership. If you are in a state like California, and you’ve registered officially as domestic partners, they’ll be entitled to the same benefits as married widows or widowers.
If there are any gray areas, or you’re in a state where civil unions aren’t recognized, you should take legal steps to name your domestic partners in your Will. To be safe, even if you’re in a state that recognizes civil unions you should still do as much estate planning as you can.
How can you ensure your domestic partner receives Life Insurance benefits?
The safest way to ensure your domestic partner receives your Life Insurance benefits is to name them as your beneficiary on the policy. You should also name them as a beneficiary for any investment accounts or other financial assets that have a transfer on death (TOD) component.
This could be the most important thing you do since insurance policies and other accounts designated with a TOD beneficiary don’t pass through the courts and go directly to the person or organization (example: charity) you name. Ideally, you’ll want to keep as much of your assets out of probate court as possible, because that’s where family members can try and lay claim to the estate. Speaking of skipping court…
Will setting up a Trust help protect your domestic partner?
Totally. Setting up a Trust will help protect your domestic partner. Trusts, despite varying from state to state and being very confusing to explain (like all complex financial mechanisms), can legally ensure that partners can receive your money and property without stepping foot in a courtroom.
The very basics of how this works: You create a Trust with an estate attorney or financial advisor, you allocate or retitle assets in the name of that Trust -- there are many different ins-and-outs, which is why we strongly recommend getting a professional to help -- if you become incapcitated or die the Trust kicks in and doles the money and assets to whoever you named as the beneficiar.
Naming your domestic partner in a Trust as your beneficiary will help them receive your assets while also minimizing estate taxes (if any apply) and avoiding probate.
While you may not have taken a trip down the aisle, or to the local court house, these are the steps you need to take to offer them as much protection as possible. Meeting with an estate attorney and filling out forms might not sound romantic, but if something bad happens to you, your partner will be able to avoid the stress and trauma of a long, painful, expensive court battle and instead celebrate the life you had together.