For most of their years as a couple, Kristy Snyder and Michael Halverson weren’t interested in marriage.
But after 12 years together, they decided they wanted some way to legally formalize their commitment to each other. When they looked into getting married, they found out that it would lead to them paying thousands of dollars more a year in taxes. That’s because their combined incomes would push them into a higher tax bracket, and their new status would impact their ability to file as heads of household.
“This whole time in our relationship together we’re like, ‘Marriage? Nah,’” Snyder said. “But now, I was actually kind of devastated because now I want to do this and now we can’t do this … That’s when Mike found out that as of Jan. 1, we would be able to apply for domestic partnership.”
On that day, a new law went into effect in California allowing opposite-sex couples under the age of 62 to register as domestic partners with the state. Previously, only same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples 62 and older were able to register.
For couples like Snyder and Halverson who are not married but want the rights, benefits and responsibilities of a legally recognized partnership, this provided a solution. And it’s a solution that many Californians have taken advantage of since the law went into effect.
In the first six months of 2020, more than twice as many Californians registered as domestic partners than did in the entire year of 2019. The increase was particularly pronounced in January, when 2,088 people filed, compared to 240 in January 2019. This isn’t even the complete total of Californians who have registered their partnerships with the state, as some couples choose to file confidentially.
California saw its highest total of people who registered in a single month in January 2000, the month the registry was first established for same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples where both partners were 62 and older.
The state saw another jump in filings in January 2002, when those requirements were expanded to include opposite-sex couples where only one partner was 62 or older.
In California, registered domestic partners are afforded many of the same rights and responsibilities as spouses, including the right to own community property, protections for the surviving partner if one dies and the ability to more easily share health insurance plans.
To register as domestic partners, a couple just needs to fill out a Declaration of Domestic Partnership form, have both partners’ signatures notarized and submit the form to the California Secretary of State’s office. The fee to register is $33 if both partners are under age 62, and $10 if either partner is 62 or older.
Couples cannot register as domestic partners if either partner is married to or in a domestic partnership with someone else, or if they are related to each other by blood. Couples where one or both people are under 18 must have a court order granting them permission to register as domestic partners. Both partners must be capable of consenting to the legal partnership.
Same-sex couples have been able to register as domestic partners in California since 2000 as an alternative to marriage while these couples were not allowed to marry. Since same-sex couples gained the right to marry in 2013, they’ve had a choice between marriage and these partnerships.
California state Sen. Scott Wiener, who authored the new domestic partnership law, said that this created a kind of discrimination against opposite-sex couples under the age of 62.
“It really made no sense,” Wiener said. “There are plenty of people who are together and they want to have legal recognition and protections, but they don’t want to get married. It may be for purposes of federal benefits, it may be because they don’t believe in the institution of marriage because of its misogynistic history, but for whatever reason they don’t want to be married.”
Why Not Marriage?
One of the reasons couples may not be interested in marrying, as Wiener referenced, is the history of the institution of marriage and the way it was tied to the oppression of women in the past. For Clarisa Sudarma and Lucas Welch, this history played into their decision to file for domestic partnership.
After 10 years together, Sudarma and Welch were getting questions from their families about when they would get married, which prompted them to talk about what getting married (or not getting married) would mean to them. The historical, cultural and religious connotations of marriage were an issue, but they wanted the legal protections that it brought.
“I’m more along the lines of not necessarily opposed to marriage, but I would lean more toward other avenues than traditional marriage just for the historical treatment of women,” Welch said.
Because of this, they saw that this new law was coming, and jumped on it when the option became available to them.
The cultural meaning surrounding marriage was also a consideration for Snyder and Halverson, who have both been married before. When people take on the title of husband, wife or spouse, Snyder said, it can change the way both partners behave in their relationship.
Snyder, who is now 46, was married when she was 20 years old. As soon as the marriage license was signed, she said she felt like she changed.
“Now I had this expectation, I’m a wife and it’s supposed to be this certain way and I’m supposed to do a certain thing,” Snyder said. “And I spoke to a lot of women that felt like they lost their identity when they got married.”
Health Care Concerns
For Sudarma and Welch, a health scare is part of what showed them the importance of the benefits of a legally recognized partnership.
A couple years back, Welch had a health scare that put him in the hospital. And while he had health insurance at the time, Sudarma said it showed her just how important that coverage is.
“I think especially when you don’t know what’s going to happen, it’s just something that we’ve thought about more seriously,” she said.
In California, health insurance providers are required to grant the same benefits to registered domestic partners as they are spouses. This means that couples who can now register as domestic partners may also be able to more easily (and potentially, cheaply) join their partner’s health insurance plan.
Another reason this situation came to mind for Sudarma when thinking about domestic partnership was that there are privacy limitations on who health care providers are allowed to give a patient’s health information to without a prior authorization. This meant that, when Welch was in the hospital, it was hard for Sudarma to get information about his condition.
“When he was in the hospital, I would call and try to check in and they would be like, ‘Well, did he sign a waiver? Did he sign a HIPAA consent or anything like that?’” Sudarma said. “It was really difficult with us being long distance at the time to get the information.”
Offering A Different Option
Despite Snyder and Halverson’s initial aversion to marriage, as they got older, bought real estate together and sought guardianship of their grandson, the idea of legally recognizing their partnership became more important.
For Snyder, making sure that she and Halverson held the rights and responsibilities to make medical and end-of-life decisions for each other was important, as was ensuring that the other partner would have rights over their shared property if one partner were to pass away.
Snyder and Halverson had granted the other power of attorney in their wills, which means that they identified their partner as being able to act on their behalf. But they were still concerned about the fact that without being married or registered domestic partners with the state, their children could potentially push the surviving partner out of key decisions or take them to court over the will.
Snyder works as an oncology nurse, where she said she’s seen decisions like these lead to fights as family members have different ideas about how their loved one should be cared for.
“And then here you have their partner who has been with this person, who knows what their wants and their needs are and it’s written down in an advance directive, but the children will come in and take over,” Snyder said.
Being in a registered domestic partnership that seals her and Halverson as the person to make these calls for the other was deeply important to Snyder.
“With this, it really is like, ‘No, this is the legal document, this person has the say in what’s going on with the beloved,’” she said.
Because of this, finding out they had a different solution after learning that getting married wasn’t an option for them financially was a big relief for Snyder and Halverson.
“For a lot of folks, marriage … it can be very expensive, it’s very stressful,” Halverson said. “Passing this law … this actually provides a lot of relief in that sense that you can still have that same commitment, still get the same benefits, but not have the added stress of that.”
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