In the aftermath of same-sex marriage cases in the Supreme Court, and the legalization of same-sex marriage across the country, domestic partnerships have taken a bit of a back seat to legal marriage in most states. While the ability of couples of all sexual orientations to be married is certainly an accomplishment to be celebrated, a domestic partnership offers many unique benefits that should not be overlooked.
While Wisconsin has offered domestic partnership benefits to same-sex couples since the adoption of a domestic partnership registry in 2009, the legal benefits of this status have recently come to a close. Under legislation passed in 2017, Wisconsin ended its domestic partnership registration in April 2018, changing the landscape of benefits available to same-sex couples.
Same-sex marriage and a Wisconsin domestic partnership have the same goal of allowing recognized legal status for same-sex couples and conferring upon them many of the benefits held by couples in heterosexual marriages, but the status differed in several key ways, and the loss of domestic partnership registration will have important effects down the road.
Under Wisconsin law, domestic partnership registration conferred several key benefits on same-sex couples, including medical and hospital visitation rights, the right to inherit property from a partner, presumed joint tenancy by partners who lived together, application of the spousal privilege, the right to sue on each other’s behalf in the event of a wrongful death, and other distinct legal rights.
While these rights are also granted to same-sex couples under Wisconsin’s new marriage laws, marriage in Wisconsin also creates new burdens and obligations that domestic partnerships did not previously have. For example, under a domestic partnership, couples were not required to go through the formal divorce process if they decided to split. Instead, they simply filed a form seeking to end their partnership, and the partnership was dissolved 90 days after the form was filed. This saved many couples the legal fees, heartache, and stress of having to go through a longer and more drawn-out divorce process.
Likewise, under Wisconsin’s domestic partnership laws, there was no presumption that domestic partners were responsible for each other’s debts, and there was no requirement that upon separation, one spouse might be entitled to maintenance or support from the other spouse. These are presumptions and requirements under Wisconsin’s marriage laws.
Certainly, the application of more legal standards and obligations cuts both ways. While it increases the legal complexity for same-sex couples and imposes additional burdens on a couple that might want the right to make medical decisions on behalf of each other, but not want to have to take on the full responsibilities to do so, marriage also offers greater protections to couples. Rather than risk a sudden separation through the filing of domestic partnership paperwork, or lose financial support or certain property upon a domestic partnership split, marriage allows couples to better protect themselves and their rights to their property.
In recent years, Wisconsin has seen a significant drop off in the number of couples registering for domestic partnerships, and many couples have decided that the benefits and obligations of marriage are for them. Indeed, numbers of registration have dropped from the thousands to only several dozen in the last year or two, which is much of the impetus for ending the domestic partnership registry.
While few people may be taking advantage of domestic partnerships at this point, family lawyers have lamented the end of the registry because it lessens the options available to couples, particularly those that want to avoid the possibility of divorce down the road. Thankfully, for those couples who registered as domestic partners prior to the April 1, 2018 deadline, their status and the benefits that accompany that status will remain in effect. It is only future couples who will be no longer able to register for domestic partnership status.
At Reddin & Singer, LLP, our experienced Milwaukee family law attorneys have worked with couples in both marriages and domestic partnerships. If you have questions about how this legal change might affect you, do not hesitate to contact our offices online or give us a call at 414-271-6400.