Domestic partnership, which is sometimes called a civil union, is a legal status recognized in some regions. It almost exclusively applies to couples of the same gender who cannot have their marriage recognized by law or who choose to not marry and don’t have their living arrangement recognized by a common law status. In many areas, when a heterosexual couple lives together for several years, they end up having a common law marriage, which entitles them to certain rights whether they remain together or not. In many regions, homosexual couples can't attain this common law status if domestic partnerships or civil unions are not recognized.
How domestic partnership is defined varies by regional laws, and in some areas it is not a right of same-sex couples. Where defined, some of the rights that might come from declaring this partnership could include the ability for each partner to make life or death decisions about the other, sharing of health or private retirement benefits, and custodial arrangements of any children. Partnerships may address rights to inheritance, and laws regarding how community property might be treated should the partnership dissolve.
Essentially, a domestic partnership confers many of the same benefits of marriage, but isn’t always considered the same marriage, and there are many people who feel the ability to form a domestic partnership is still little substitute for the ability to marry. Some critics believe that allowing same sex couples the right to domestic partnerships but not legal marriage is a type of separate but equal prejudice that violates civil rights laws. Even while arguing this, most people recognize that development of these laws, the first one in California in 1999, was the first step in providing legal legitimization of gay couples who were in long-term relationships and had no legal protection.
There are several important things to note about a domestic partnership. First, it can’t be overstated that its establishment doesn’t always mean it is equal with marriage. The rights given under one of these unions are the rights stated in whatever laws were used to create it. Sometimes people find they need to work with attorneys to write more specific statements and wills should one member of the couple die because rights to the surviving member of the couple are not always equal to the rights of a surviving spouse. This is especially the case when it comes to who can make end of life medical decisions and who can become a guardian for children.
The other difficulty with domestic partnership laws in places like the US is that they’re recognized by states but not necessarily by every state or on the federal level. The partnership could dissolve if a couple relocates, and rights of that established partnership might only be respected while people remain in the region where it originated. Before traveling or relocating, it is advised that people determine in what ways other regions would or would not recognize status, and whether there are legal steps that might be taken to port these rights elsewhere.