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The new year brings an alternative for heterosexual couples in California: domestic partnership. Before, only same-sex couples and heterosexual couples older than 62 had the option.

The new law gives all couples a choice other than traditional marriage. Some people favor domestic partnership because they believe traditional marriage carries unfavorable religious or patriarchal meanings.

Domestic partnership and the state of California

Domestic partnership gives heterosexual couples the same rights as same-sex couples in California. Some of these include the following:

  • Taking a partner’s last name, or a name combining last names
  • Receiving survivor protections when one partner dies
  • Raising a child born during the partnership
  • Adopting the child of a partner
  • Adding a partner to state health benefits
  • Owning community property

Also, domestic partners may not have to divorce when they split up. Couples who qualify may file a “termination of domestic partnership” notice.

Domestic partnership and the federal government

The federal government does not recognize domestic partnerships, and still considers couples as single people who must file separate federal tax returns. This may work to a couple’s advantage. For example, it may allow them to avoid the so-called “marriage penalty” when paying their taxes.

But lack of federal recognition also poses obstacles for domestic partnerships. Partners do not have the rights and protections of married couples when they are in other states. Other issues include couples being unable to do the following:

  • Sponsor a noncitizen partner applying for citizenship
  • Adopt a child from another country
  • Share some federal employment benefits

Domestic partnership and the future

The domestic partnership law is a big step forward toward equality for all couples, but it is not perfect. There are some exemptions. Complex questions are bound to arise because the law is new and untested. Lawmakers and the courts may have to make difficult decisions as they figure out how the law will apply to a wide variety of situations.