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Domestic Partnership vs. Marriage in California – What’s the Difference?

The phrase “domestic partnership” has been declining in both popular parlance and media visibility since same-sex marriage became legal across the United States in 2015. Some people wonder if domestic partnerships are even “a thing” at all anymore now that any two consenting adults can freely marry one another, regardless of their sex or gender.

There seems to be a popular misunderstanding that “domestic partnership” was only a legal loophole that same-sex couples of the past had used to codify their marriages before those marriages were legal. However, domestic partnerships do still exist in the present day, and they can have distinct advantages over marriages in certain circumstances.

Domestic partnerships and marriages have several similarities, but they also have some distinct differences. In those differences, we can find a long history of civil rights struggle. We can also find some unique and interesting benefits for committed couples who choose to explore domestic partnerships instead of jumping into marriage.

While domestic partnerships were once pretty strictly available to a same-sex couple, they are, as of 2020, available to any two consenting adults of any gender or orientation — just like marriage — in California.

Domestic Partnership vs. Marriage

While marriage and domestic partnership are both ways to have a relationship legally recognized by the government, they aren’t the same. This, of course, was the driving factor behind the continued struggle for same-sex marriage rights in the 2000s and 2010s despite many states offering domestic partnerships. In that context, gay rights activists long derided domestic partnership as a watered-down and insufficient version of marriage, but now that both processes are open to partners of all types, that perspective has room to evolve.

To best understand the differences between these two distinct legal tools, we can look at the benefits associated with each. In California, getting married provides over a thousand different benefits to a spouse. Instead of describing the technical aspects of each, let’s look more broadly at the areas in which getting married can improve someone’s life in a material way.

Some of the rights and benefits that are enhanced by California marriage include:

  • Estate planning/inheritance
  • Joint filing of taxes
  • Insurance
  • Childcare and custody
  • Health care
  • Government benefits
  • A share of marital assets after divorce (subject to prenuptial contracts)
  • Adoption

While engaging in a domestic partnership can net you some of the same or similar benefits, the differences are better understood by listing what a domestic partnership does not cover.

Californians in a domestic partnership can legally claim their children and share certain benefits, but domestic partners do not:

  • Receive eligibility for certain insurance benefits
  • Transfer assets freely between partners without taxation
  • File joint taxes
  • Have community property divided via legally binding court order upon dissolution of the partnership
  • Receive their partner’s Social Security or most other government benefits

Qualifying for a California Domestic Partnership

The procedure for getting a domestic partnership in California can actually be more flexible and convenient than going to the courthouse for a traditional marriage license. In California, you can still file for a domestic partnership locally, but you can also begin the process by contacting the California Secretary of State’s office directly or even through your employer. Often this last method will be used as a way to keep all relevant parties on the same page when the primary purpose of the domestic partnership is to share work-funded benefits.

While the process of filing offers multiple options, the requirements for eligibility are less flexible. To become domestic partners in California, a couple must:

  • Not be party to any marriages or existing domestic partnerships
  • Share a residence
  • Share living expenses
  • Not be blood relatives
  • Both be 18 or older

FAQs About Domestic Partnership vs. Marriage in California

Is Domestic Partnership the Same as Marriage in California?

No. The most notable difference between domestic partnership and marriage used to be that domestic partnership was a tool used by same-sex couples as a stand-in for marriage. Today, it can be thought of more like an alternate “marriage light” arrangement. Now the difference has more to do with the rights available to the partners under each type of arrangement. A marriage will grant your partner more access to your assets and benefits than they would have under a domestic partnership.

Does a Domestic Partnership Guarantee the Same Rights as a Marriage?

A domestic partnership does provide some of the same rights as marriage, but not all of them. As domestic partners, you will be legally recognized as a couple for several meaningful purposes, including child-rearing, but you avoid some of the legal and financial burdens of marriage. Couples who want to cohabitate and raise children without fully mixing their finances are often good candidates for a domestic partnership.

What Are the Benefits of Marriage vs. Domestic Partnership?

A marriage is a more robust contract than a domestic partnership in terms of the co-mingling of assets. This will be especially relevant if the marriage ends in divorce — the California courts are bound by law to divide the marital assets equally between each ex-spouse.

How Does California Define a Domestic Partner?

In California, a domestic partnership is legally defined as two adults who have chosen to enter into a committed and intimate relationship and share their lives. This label comes with various financial and familial benefits similar (but not equal) to those in a traditional marriage. If you are considering a domestic partnership, it’s important to research the differences between these and legal marriages.

Need Help Establishing Your California Domestic Partnership?

If you need assistance filing for a domestic partnership or fully exploring your options before moving ahead with marriage, the family law experts at All American Law are standing by to help. Our years of expertise lie in the areas of family law, child custody, and other areas of interest to those embarking on a new domestic partnership or marriage. Contact us today for a consultation, and let us put you on solid legal footing as you take your first steps down a beautiful path to building your family and future.

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