Domestic Partnership vs Marriage: What’s the Difference?

How is domestic partnership different from marriage?
on March 06, 2024
Read time: 10 mins
by Moraya Seeger DeGeare

When it comes to a committed relationship, choices are part of the package. 

However, some choices are more significant than others, with the debate between domestic partnership vs marriage posing a lot of questions — with this decision usually not as open to compromise. 

On the one hand, we have marriage, the classic blend of tradition and legalities, steeped in cultural and historical significance. It's the full-bodied, rich espresso of relationships — strong, recognized everywhere, and with a depth that has been celebrated and debated over centuries. 

On the other hand, there's the domestic partnership, a newer variant on the menu that offers couples a different path — with its one range of perks and opportunities. When making the choice between these two relationship commitments, there are a lot of pros and cons to consider… So to help you out, we’ve started the list for you! 

Disclaimer: If you have any questions or concerns about your domestic partnership agreement or marriage, it’s important to reach out to a family law attorney or specialist for the right advice — who can give you legal advice relevant to your situation and location. 

Key Takeaways
  • Marriage offers extensive legal and societal benefits, deeply rooted in tradition, while domestic partnerships provide legal recognition with fewer benefits, appealing to those seeking alternatives to marriage.
  • As the more traditional option, marriage grants comprehensive rights like tax benefits, inheritance, and decision-making authority. Instead, domestic partnerships offer select rights, varying by location or jurisdiction.
  • While couples can weigh up the benefits, the ultimate decision between the two depends on individual preferences, beliefs, and legal considerations in one's jurisdiction. It should be a collaborative decision made between two partners, ideally with access to all information and relevant legal advice.

What is marriage? 

Marriage is a socially and legally recognized institution between two individuals in a committed relationship who want to make things official for a variety of reasons. 

At its core, marriage is a personal, cultural, and sometimes religious symbol of commitment, and it often represents a pledge of love and fidelity. In many societies, marriage is associated with the family unit and is a foundational institution for the raising of children and the organization of communal life — even though these concepts have become more malleable in modern times. 

While some people view marriage as a wider concept, at its core, common-law marriage is a legal document that confers a range of rights and responsibilities. The legal aspects of marriage are governed by the laws of the jurisdiction in which the marriage takes place and can vary widely. Generally, married couples have access to a range of protections including tax benefits, visitation rights,  inheritance rights, and decision-making authority in health and legal matters.

These legal benefits are a priority for some couples, while others think with their hearts over their heads. For many couples, marriage is a rite of passage, marking a transition in relationship status that marks a commitment to shared growth, companionship, and mutual support.

Why do some people believe that marriage is a dying institution?

While many people advocate for the importance of marriage, there has been a significant change in social norms in the past few decades that have limited the importance of this kind of commitment. 

In our grandparents’ generation (and even our parent’s generation), marriage was almost a non-negotiable concept and a necessary step in any relationship. This was largely due to societal norms, as it was not socially acceptable to live with or have children with (amongst many other things!) someone you were not married to. 

Obviously, amongst many modern cultures, there are fewer concerns around marriage — as relationship dynamics and societal acceptance have evolved significantly. 

“Couples are moving to design relationships that feel authentic for them and branching away from simply modeling what they experienced growing up,” says Moraya Seeger DeGeare, a licensed marriage and family therapist and In-House Expert at Paired.

“In the designing of an authentic relationship, it places less emphasis on just getting married and that’s all it takes and focuses on what will sustain the relationship far past a wedding day.”

What is a domestic partnership? 

A domestic partnership is a legally recognized relationship between two individuals who live together and share a domestic life but are not married. 

Since not everyone can avail of a marriage license under state law, this concept emerged as a way to provide certain legal protections and rights to unmarried couples. This was primarily availed of by same-sex couples, who were not allowed access to traditional routes of commitment. 

While it took a long time, with same-sex marriage campaigns beginning in the 1970s in the United States, these restrictions have largely dissolved. Starting with Massachusetts in 2004, all fifty states now legally recognize same-sex marriage. However, every state has separate marriage laws, which all must adhere to the Supreme Court. 

Those who could get married but have chosen not to (for other reasons), could consider a domestic partnership to avail of certain legal rights or benefits that would not otherwise be available to them. However, while a domestic partnership is a legal relationship, the rights and responsibilities associated with this can vary significantly depending on the jurisdiction.

Are domestic partnerships and civil unions the same thing? 

Domestic partnerships can also be referred to as civil unions depending on your state. They are similar concepts in that they both provide legal recognition of a relationship between two people without them being married. 

However, there are distinctions between the two, primarily in the extent of legal rights they confer and how they are recognized by different jurisdictions.

Currently, four states, Colorado, Illinois, Hawaii, and New Jersey recognize civil unions, while domestic partnerships are recognized by states such as California, Washington, and Wisconsin. Depending on your location, there are different legal associations and benefits to be considered. 

Generally speaking, domestic partnerships can actually be more limiting, as they are more variable depending on your circumstances. 

Is a girlfriend a domestic partner?

While your girlfriend can become your domestic partner, simply being in a romantic relationship does not automatically qualify them in this category. 

The criteria for a domestic partnership typically include factors such as cohabitation, duration of the relationship, and shared financial responsibilities. Once again, these all vary based on your jurisdiction. 

What is the difference between a domestic partnership and marriage?

With so much to consider, and so many legalities involved, it can be difficult to ascertain the precise differences between domestic partnerships and marriage. 

As our explanations have outlined, the differences between these two partnerships primarily lie in the level of legal recognition and the range of rights and benefits each provides. 

Generally speaking, marriage is a legally and socially recognized union that is widely accepted across various cultures and legal systems. It confers a comprehensive set of rights, protections, and obligations to the couple.

On the other hand, domestic partnerships tend to offer a more limited range of benefits and are not as uniformly recognized as marriage. It’s important to be aware of the key differences between these commitments, so you can make the best choice for your needs. 

Key characteristics of a marriage

Legal recognition: Marriage is recognized by the state and often by religious institutions, conferring a wide range of legal rights, responsibilities, and social status.
Public commitment: Beyond legal benefits, marriage is often viewed as a public commitment to one’s partner. Not only is this seen as a romantic gesture, but it also provides couples with additional security in their relationships, as it can make the relationship seem more definitive. From a social perspective, marriage provides couples with a kind of legitimacy, even though this varies culturally.
Cultural significance: Beyond legal aspects, marriage often holds deep cultural, religious, and personal significance, symbolizing love, commitment, and family unity. Although not true across the board, marriage is traditionally seen as the foundation for establishing a family, encompassing responsibilities for child-rearing and extended family relations.
Rights and obligations: As well as legal recognition, and the coinciding benefits, marriage also gives you a range of additional rights. These include joint parental rights, inheritance, pension, tax benefits, and right to healthcare or medical decisions on behalf of your partner. Other perks include the ability to file joint tax returns and the benefits of structured estate planning.
Legal formation and dissolution: Entering into a marriage requires a legal or religious ceremony, and its dissolution is governed by family law, involving procedures like divorce or annulment (usually with the help of a lawyer or law firm).

Key characteristics of a domestic partnership

Cohabitation: Living together is usually one of the primary requirements for a domestic partnership, as this is seen as a more basic element of domesticity.
Legal recognition: Some localities and employers recognize these partnerships and offer certain legal benefits and protections, such as health insurance benefits, the right to family leave, hospital and jail visitation rights, and sometimes tax benefits.
Rights and protections: While domestic partnerships offer some of the rights of marriage, they usually do not provide the full legal protections or benefits of marriage. For example, if your domestic partner dies, you will not be able to receive Social Security benefits or other federal survival benefits that spouses are automatically entitled to.
Appealing to diverse couples: Originally, domestic partnerships were usually the most appealing to same-sex couples (due to various restrictions imposed on this demographic). However, domestic partnerships appeal to a diverse range of people (including opposite-sex couples) especially those who prefer not to marry for personal or financial reasons.
Legal dissolution: Even though it’s not something you want to think about when entering a partnership, ending a domestic partnership can be simpler than divorce in some jurisdictions, but this varies widely.

What are the benefits of marriage vs domestic partnership?

When comparing the benefits of marriage and domestic partnerships, several key differences stand out, particularly in terms of legal recognition, societal acceptance, and the range of benefits provided.

There are certain areas in which marriage is seen to have wider benefits, but domestic partnerships can also have perks in certain situations. 

There are several differences in rights, responsibilities, and even taxes that all couples to consider. 

For example, there are also certain tax penalties to consider, as marriage infers some additional taxes known as ‘marriage tax’ — which people in domestic partnerships can avoid. However, domestic partners may hit other struggles in terms of tax as they can’t file federal taxes or state tax returns together. 

Additionally, while married couples have certain Social Security and life insurance benefits, not all domestic partnerships infer the same rights. 

While the list of comparisons goes on, while both marriage and domestic partnerships provide legal acknowledgment of a couple's relationship, marriage offers a broader and more universally accepted suite of rights and benefits, along with greater societal and cultural recognition.

However, the ultimate choice around which avenue to pursue comes down to your own personal preferences (as well as your partners) and the laws within your jurisdiction. If you’re struggling to decide which option is best for you, it’s important to seek professional legal advice to ensure you and your partner are both well-informed on your options. 

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