Domestic Partner Benefits Are Here Now

Calvin House
February 14, 2008 — 2,725 views  
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Lost in the turmoil over the constitutionality of same sex marriage are the state statutes that already provide benefits to same sex partners, whether or not their unions are sanctioned as marriages. Vermont, Hawaii, New Jersey and California have conferred rights on domestic partners. Eleven other states have conferred limited rights by banning sexual orientation discrimination. Others may follow. This article focuses on the California statute to illustrate the types of issues that employers will face in jurisdictions that recognize domestic partner rights.

The California Domestic Partner Rights and Responsibilities Act, which took effect on January 1, 2005, affords registered domestic partners all the rights and duties of married partners. As a result, any state or local law that confers a benefit because of marriage must now be read to confer the same benefit based on domestic partner status. Although it will take some time to determine all the rights and duties that are affected by the new provisions, there is no doubt about some of the rights that registered domestic partners will have now:

For example, California has a family leave statute that mimics the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. Under that law, an employee has a right to up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to attend to the serious health condition of a "spouse." Under the new statute, a California employee now has a right under state law to leave to attend to the serious health condition of a domestic partner.

Many employers provide group health insurance that covers their employees' spouses. Since the new statute bars discrimination on the basis of domestic partner status, employers will now have to extend to domestic partners the same group health insurance benefits that they extend to spouses. To assist employers in providing such benefits, the California legislature enacted the California Insurance Equality Act, which requires health insurers to provide equal coverage to spouses and registered domestic partners.

The other three states with domestic partner laws provide varying levels of equality with married partners. The New Jersey Domestic Partnership Act provides equality in insurance coverage, medical decision making and joint tax return filing. The Hawaii Reciprocal Beneficiaries Law affords hospital visitation and medical decision making rights, the right to inherit, certain death benefits, and funeral and family leave under state law. The Vermont Civil Union Law offers protection in inheritance and property division, child custody and visitation, family leave, state tax benefits, medical decision-making and hospital visitation.

Employers should always stay on top of legal developments to ensure that their practices comply with all applicable laws. Because domestic partner laws are new, and subject to abrupt change, employers must be especially alert to their obligations in this area.

Calvin House

Gutierrez, Preciado & House, LLP