Insights:

  • Employers and health plans are more likely to recognize domestic partnerships now. 


Just as marriage has evolved over the past few decades, so too has the health insurance industry. The health insurance landscape is trying to keep pace with society and therefore finds itself adjusting, including when it comes to health insurance benefits available for domestic partners.

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More than half of American adults are married, according to the Pew Research Center. Still, the popularity of marriage has declined somewhat in recent decades. For example, in 1995, 58% of adults were married. By 2019, that number had fallen to 53%. 

And while marriage has declined, the number of couples cohabitating has increased.  Since 1995, the percentage of adults living with an unmarried partner has risen from 3% to 7%.

Something else that might contribute to the higher domestic partnership rate -- employers are recognizing them more. You no longer have to get married to get health insurance for your partner, which was always a huge benefit in the past.

The health insurance marketplace offers domestic partnership health insurance benefits.

Key Takeaways

  • A domestic partnership is when two unmarried people live together and are involved in an interpersonal relationship sharing their domestic life.
  • Domestic partners enjoy many of the legal rights and benefits of marriage, including health insurance coverage.
  • If you can get health insurance for a domestic partner, you will likely need to sign an affidavit confirming that you meet the criteria of a domestic partnership.
  • Children of domestic partners are usually covered under health insurance plans.

What is a domestic partner? 

A domestic partner is a term that refers to an unmarried partner regardless of gender.

The definition of a domestic partnership is when two people live together and are involved in an interpersonal relationship sharing their domestic life as if married -- however, they’re not married or joined by a civil union, says Tracy Burns, CEO of Northeast HR Association (NEHRA). 

"A domestic partnership is very similar to marriage. It can apply to couples who are not married but live together,” Burns says. “Domestic partnerships provide some legal benefits that married couples enjoy. In some states, domestic partnership is also known as a civil union."

If your employer offers health insurance coverage for domestic partners, you'll likely need to sign an affidavit. You’ll need to confirm that:

  • You’ve lived together for at least six months.
  • You’re both 18 or older.
  • You share a close personal relationship and are responsible for each other's common welfare.
  • You’re exclusive.
  • You aren’t married to anyone else.
  • You aren’t related by blood closer than would bar marriage in the state.
  • You share the same regular and permanent residence with the intent to continue doing so indefinitely.
  • You’re jointly financially responsible for "basic living expenses," defined as the cost of basic food, shelter and any other expenses of a domestic partner because of the domestic partnership.
  • You were mentally competent to consent to the contract when the domestic partnership began.

Some employers impose waiting periods. These provisions vary by state and employer. 

“Employees should check their company policies as well as company benefit plan documents to know what they are and are not entitled to when it comes to benefits,” says Yvette Lee, HR knowledge advisor for the Society for Human Resource Management. 

Lee notes that offering domestic partner benefits originally was a way to treat same-sex married couples fairly, given that there were states that didn’t recognize same-sex marriages.  

“Since the 2015 U.S Supreme Court decision which legalized same-sex marriages, there has been a decline in (companies) offering domestic partner benefits over the years,” Lee says. 

Lee adds that no federal laws require employers to include domestic partners in their benefits plans.

How to get a domestic partnership certificate

The rules to register a domestic partnership certificate vary depending on where you live. 

For example, in Nevada, you must file a Declaration of Domestic Partnership form. After signing the form in the presence of a notary public (electronic notarization is also accepted), registered domestic partners pay a $50 registration fee and receive a black and white certificate. 

In New Jersey, you must obtain and complete an Affidavit of Domestic Partnership form to register as domestic partners. This must be done in the presence of a notary public. Once you file and register the affidavit with the local registrar of vital statistics in any municipality in the state of New Jersey, you receive an “informational copy” of the Certificate of Domestic partnership.

To show proof of a registered domestic partnership, you’re required to obtain a certified copy of the Certificate of Domestic Partnership.

If you live in a state that recognizes a domestic partnership – the District of Columbia, California, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin or Hawaii (known as "reciprocal beneficiaries”) – check with authorities to learn the rules. 

What is a registered domestic partnership?

A registered domestic partnership is the legal recognition of a union between two people that is not a marriage but that includes two people who live together and share a domestic life. Rules differ by state, but registered domestic partnerships can apply to both same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples. 

This type of union isn’t the same as a marriage, but it does confer some of the benefits of being married. These may include: 

  • The ability to add a domestic partner to your health insurance coverage
  • The ability to adopt your partner's child

Some states and localities require that one or both members be at least 62 years old for the couple to register as a domestic partnership. Washington and New Jersey are two examples of states with this rule. The decision to grant these rights at that age reflects the fact that some couples can get greater Social Security benefits by remaining unmarried in the eyes of the law. 

What is the difference between domestic partnership and marriage? 

Domestic partners can receive the same health insurance that’s offered to married employees.

"Domestic partner health insurance is when an insurance contract extends the definition of spouse to recognize domestic partners,” Burns says. “As a result, the health insurance benefits may be extended to the unmarried partner and their children.”

Couples of the same sex, as well as those of the opposite sex, can share insurance under a domestic partner insurance coverage just as a married couple would, Burns says. The biggest benefit of this arrangement is a reduced insurance rate and the ability to be eligible for the employee benefits package, she adds.

Companies and insurance plans operate differently when it comes to a domestic partnership vs. marriage. Burns suggests you ask questions.

"Ask your benefits plan administrator to find out the specifics and make your formal request so that your partner may be added as soon as possible,” she says. “Most employer health plans will allow the addition of a domestic partner if the plan includes this kind of coverage.”

Burns suggests contacting your HR person or the insurance company directly and ask if you can insure your domestic partner on your employee health insurance plan. If the answer is yes, find out what steps you need to take to get started. 

“If your employer's health insurance plan does not provide domestic partner insurance, you can check with a private company,” Burns says. 

What states recognize domestic partnerships?

A growing number of states now make legal rights available to spouses in same-sex relationships. These are offered to those in civil unions and domestic partnerships.

According to the National Conference for State Legislatures, five states now recognize civil unions: 

  • Colorado
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Vermont 
  • New Jersey

Another six states and the District of Columbia recognize domestic partnerships. The states on this list are: 

  • California
  • Maine
  • Nevada
  • Oregon
  • Washington 
  • Wisconsin 

Hawaii allows for relationships similar to domestic partnerships. These relationships are known as "reciprocal beneficiaries."

Same-sex marriage laws have passed in five states, meaning civil unions in these states have been converted into marriages. Those states are: 

  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • New Hampshire
  • Rhode Island 
  • Vermont 

All states that allow for civil unions or domestic partnerships also allow for same-sex marriage.

Are children of domestic partners covered under health plans?

Yes, children of domestic partners are typically covered under health insurance plans.

“Typically, if an employer’s health insurance provides coverage to domestic partners, then children of that partnership usually meet the definition of dependent and can obtain coverage,” Lee says. 

However, Lee adds that employees in domestic partnerships should review the health insurance benefit plan document and their company benefits administrator to make sure their children are covered. 

Do Medicare and Medicaid recognize domestic partnerships? 

No, Medicare and Medicaid don’t recognize domestic partnerships. 

Similar to the IRS, Medicare and Medicaid don’t recognize domestic partners as spouses. They’re governed by federal law, which doesn’t recognize or afford benefits to domestic partners.

What are tax implications for domestic partners? 

The tax arena is one area with a clear difference between spousal insurance and domestic partner insurance.

Federal law dictates that spouses' and dependents' health insurance premiums can’t be taxed. However, domestic partnerships aren’t recognized by the federal government. So, the premiums paid for that partner and dependents are considered income for tax purposes.

That means that the employee will have to pay income tax and Social Security taxes on that premium every paycheck.

The Supreme Court’s decision that legalized same-sex marriage cleared barriers for couples. However, you can still get many of the same benefits if you’re in a domestic partnership.

What are health care rights for people in domestic partnerships? 

Domestic partnerships aren’t a federally recognized union, so the rights and responsibilities surrounding them vary by state. Some states allow hospital visitation and medical decision-making benefits.

For example, Washington state offers domestic partnerships for those over 62 and their partners as long as they are at least 18 years of age and cohabitate. The reason that Washington allows domestic partnerships based on age is because some seniors might lose pension benefits from a previous spouse if they remarry.

If the couple qualifies, domestic partners may have hospital visitation rights, make medical decisions for their partner, take paid medical leave to care for their ill partner, have bereavement leave and can plan a funeral and burial.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you become a domestic partner?

The rules for becoming a domestic partner vary by state. In most cases, you need to fill out and sign forms and pay a fee before the state recognizes your partnership. Check with your state to learn the rules you must follow. 

Can I add my boyfriend to my health insurance?

Employees typically can’t add a boyfriend or girlfriend to their health insurance. 

“Normally, to obtain coverage under an employer’s plan, a person would need to meet the definition in the benefit plan document for spouse or domestic partner or dependent,” Lee says. 

She adds that in her experience, boyfriends and girlfriends don’t meet any of the definitions to obtain coverage. She suggests employees check with their company benefits administrator for more information.

Can straight couples get domestic partnerships?

Straight couples may be allowed to register in domestic partnerships in some states. For example, California law changed in recent years to allow straight couples to pursue this option. 

Other states might allow the option, but only if one or both members of the couple are at least 62. That is because 62 is the age at which couples can file for Social Security benefits, and in some cases, couples can get higher Social Security benefits if they remain unmarried.