With the Oregon Family Fairness Act (OFFA) now in effect, registered domestic partners now have some of the same rights as a married couple, at least in Oregon and any other state which chooses to recognize these partnerships.* This post explains what a domestic partnership is, both for heterosexual and same-sex couples, and what the benefits of registering are for same-sex couples.
Let’s start with what seems like the easy part: what are domestic partnerships? Under OFFA, same-sex couples over 18 may register as partners. However, heterosexual couples may not register as partners (primarily because they already have the ability to receive these benefits through marriage). Because the Oregon Constitution limits marriage to heterosexual couples, a separate mechanism for uniting families was required. (Check out the Basic Rights Oregon website for a wonderful guide to the legislation.)
But what are these automatic rights married couples get that unmarried and unregistered domestic partners don’t have?
Some rights are obvious: for example, to make medical decisions for a partner when the partner is unable to make those decisions him or herself or to automatically inherit property if a partner dies without a will. Others aren’t as obvious, like the ability to claim wrongful death benefits or crime victim survivor benefits if a partner is killed.
Some rights are provided by the state, like the automatic inheritance of a partner or how custody would be determined in a partnership dissolution, because inheritance and family laws are set by the state. Other rights are federal, like the ability to file jointly on federal income taxes. Oregon’s domestic partnership law can only affect state-provided rights. Subsection 9 of the legislation provides that “any privilege, immunity, right or ben3efit granted by statute, administrative or court rule, policy, common law or any other law to an individual because the individual is or was married….is granted on equivalent terms, substantive and procedural, to an individual because the individual is or was in a domestic partnership…”
It doesn’t get more equal than that in Oregon, save in name alone. Additionally, registered partners also have all the same responsibilities as married couples!
But since this is a legal blog, we’re mostly concerned about the juicy bits – those rights dealing with estate planning, wrongful death claims, adoptions, custody, and, of course, dissolution of the partnership.
But first, a little history. Some readers might be surprised to learn that domestic partnerships in family law courts aren’t new in Oregon. In fact, Oregon family law courts have dissolved an increasing number of heterosexual domestic partnerships. In doing so, the court would look back and determine whether or not the parties actually intended to form a domestic partnership: even though these are relationship dissolutions, frequently one party argues it was not a partnership (usually the party with assets) and the other argues that it was (usually the party with fewer assets). To find out what the parties intended, the court uses a test usually used in the context of business partnerships – did the parties intend to pool resources and share liabilities? If the answer is yes, then the court tries to find an equitable way to divvy up the parties’ resources. If no, then the parties keep their separate property.
Sounds easy, right? But it’s not. The court can’t order spousal support. Custody of children is very complex, because for a non-biological parent to receive custody or visitation, another action must be filed (although in fairness, it may be joined to the dissolution of domestic partnership action). Basically, in the absence of a clear statute, the family law court exercises its equity powers — basically, whatever the court thinks is fair on that day. This means results can vary even more widely than they can with the assistance of statutes.
What OFFA does for same-sex couples is give the court all of the well-developed tools the legislature has enacted over the years for the dissolution of marriage cases, as well as providing more options for determining custody of children in a partnership dissolution. (If you want to know just how busy the legislature has been in developing and honing those family laws, take a gander at ORS 107 and ORS 109!)
We hope domestic partnerships thrive. However, if you have registered a partnership and wish to dissolve it, think carefully about your next steps and consult with an attorney well versed in dissolution of marriage procedures. Due to the sensitivity of the subject matter, don’t be shy about asking your attorney what he or she thinks of your lifestyle. It does matter. It’s important that there be an open and trusting atmosphere in your dealings with your dissolution attorney.
*Although states are supposed to give each other’s laws “full faith and credit” under the US Constitution – and this includes honoring marriages – states do not have to do so when another state’s laws violate public policy in that state. This was, generally, the way the law was practiced before the enaction of the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” (or DOMA) in 1996, but it’s now the law of the land. So, for example, if a couple marries at the age of 14, and that is legal in the state in which they reside, but is illegal in another state, the question of the marriage’s validity in the second state is up for grabs, depending on the policy implication of 14 year olds marrying. If thinking about this makes your head hurt, you’re not alone: the topic of marriages alone took up weeks in my Conflicts of Law class.