State and federal laws about same-sex relationships have changed a lot over the past few decades and will probably continue to change in the near future, so it’s important to understand the current statutes and how they may affect your relationship. Out of the all the 50 US states, California was the first one to grant the most rights and protections to same-sex couples through its domestic partnership law. Enacted in 1999, domestic partnerships in California gave same-sex partners (and opposite-sex couples where at least one party is age 62 or older) a legal status similar to marriage, at least at the state level. When same-sex couples registered as domestic partners, they would be able to use sick leave or family leave to take care of an ill partner, and name their partners as beneficiaries of their wills and 401(k) Plans. Since then California domestic partnerships have been expanded to include all of the rights and responsibilities common to marriage, and are equivalent to civil unions offered in several other states.
In 2008, shortly after the California Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriages were legal, California voters approved Proposition 8, which stripped same-sex couples of the freedom to marry. In 2013, the US Supreme Court reinstated the trial court ruling invalidating Proposition 8 and same-sex couples have had the freedom to marry in California since that decision. The ruling established that all married couples in California, including same-sex couples, must be treated by the federal government as married, equally, and with respect. The ruling also stated that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which required the federal government to treat same-sex couples as unmarried and prohibited them from granting same-sex married couples any of the federal benefits, protections, and responsibilities based on marriage, violated the state Constitution’s guarantees of equality and liberty. Most recently, in 2015, the US Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have the freedom to marry throughout the United States. The ruling is based on the fact that the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to allow same-sex couples to marry and to recognize marriages of same-sex couples performed outside of their home state.
Having said that, it is important to understand that domestic partnerships and marriages, or even civil unions, are not the same thing, even though they can have the same legal implications. Despite the 2015 Supreme Court’s ruling, which allows same-sex couples to legally marry in any of the 50 states, very few US states have created domestic relationship programs for same-sex couples. If a state does not have a domestic partnership program in place, it may not recognize a couple’s domestic partnership as legal if the couple moves to that state. Fortunately, California recognizes domestic partnerships created in other states as valid and partners do not need to re-register their domestic partnership. Of course, the same applies to same-sex marriages since the 2015 Supreme Court’s ruling. Couples who are legally married in another jurisdiction or state are recognized as married in California as well. The relationship will be treated as marriage, not domestic partnership. This is based upon the legal concept of Full Faith and Credit. That is, if a “thing” is legal in one state is legal in all others.
Domestic partnership registrations in California are different from marriage licenses. They are processed by the California Secretary of State’s office, which also processes the termination of those domestic partnerships. On the other hand, county governments process marriage licenses, as well as dissolution of those marriages. Registered domestic partners are treated exactly the same as married couples, including with regard to community property, spousal support and child support, in case of separation. Today, domestic partners living in California need to communicate their separation to the Secretary of State’s office, even if the domestic relationship was granted by another state. Domestic partnerships can be resolved out of court if many conditions are met, including that both parties sign the termination papers, there are no children of the relationship, there are limited common assets and debts, and there is no request for spousal support. In all other circumstances, domestic partnerships can only be terminated by obtaining a judgment of dissolution from a court, just like any marriage. Experienced family law mediators are trained to advise same-sex couples during the separation process, to help them same time, money and grief by encouraging communication and compromise to reach a prompt agreement.