Domestic Partnership Divorce Rights

by Beverly Bird

Ending a domestic partnership isn’t much different from ending a marriage. In both cases, the laws vary from state to state, and in one respect, federal law gets tangled up in the proceedings as well. Your rights are largely the same as if you were married, with one major exception. If you’ve moved to a state that does not recognize domestic partnerships – and many do not – you may not be able to terminate the partnership there.

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Notice of Termination

As with many things, there’s an easy way and a more difficult way to end a domestic partnership in some states. If you take the easy way out, you may end up giving up your right to appeal. Some states give you the option of filing a “Notice of Termination of Domestic Partnership” with the secretary of state or other official registrar. This is similar to simplified or summary divorce proceedings in states that provide for an expedited divorce process under certain circumstances. For example, in California, you must have registered as domestic partners within the previous five years and cannot have any children together.

Petition for Dissolution

Your other option is to file a complaint or petition for dissolution with the court. In some states, this is the only way you can end your domestic partnership. This process is often identical to getting a divorce. You and your partner can negotiate a settlement of your issues and file it with the court, or you can let the court rule for you after a trial. When your union is dissolved, the courts in some states will notify the state registrar that your partnership has ended.

Alimony Rights

Ending either a registered domestic partnership or marriage involves three basic issues: custody of minors, division of joint debts and property, and support. You may be entitled to alimony when you end your union if your partner earns more than you do. This is rarely a statutory right – it’s usually left to the discretion of the judge on a case-by-case basis. Unlike alimony after a marriage, you don’t have to claim this money as income on your federal tax return, but if you’re paying alimony, you’re not entitled to a tax deduction for it, either. Federal law does not recognize domestic partnerships so there’s no provision for alimony between domestic partners in the tax code.

Debts and Property

The court can divide your debts and property when you break up, with some limitations. For example, in New Jersey, courts won’t divide debts or property that are only in one partner's name, even if acquired while the two of you were together. A judge can address division of joint debts and property, however – anything that you acquired together and held in both names. This differs from a traditional marriage where nearly everything acquired during the marriage is subject to division in a divorce, regardless of whose name is on the property.

Custody Issues

If you and your partner have children together, you both have custody rights unless and until the court rules otherwise. If you don’t reach a custody agreement with your partner, the judge will name one of you the custodial parent. Courts can also order joint custody. After custody is awarded, the custodial parent has a right to child support. In jurisdictions that recognize registered domestic partnerships, such as the District of Columbia, a presumption of parentage usually exists just as it would if you had married. You don’t have to take any special steps to legally establish parentage the way unmarried parents do, such as by filing a paternity action with the court or signing a voluntary acknowledgment of parenthood.