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The New Domestic Partnership Law - What It Means For You

On January 13th, Governor McGreevey signed the Domestic Partnership Act into law. The law goes into effect on July 11, 2004. This Act gives homosexual partners and senior, heterosexual, unmarried couples various rights. To receive these benefits, the couple must file an Affidavit of Domestic Partnership with the local registrar. In order to qualify for registration, the couple must reside together, share living expenses, and share a bank account or some other property. The partners must provide proof that they meet these requirements, such as a deed or lease in both their names. Partners must either be of the same sex or, if of different sexes, age sixty-two or older.

Although the law does not provide all the benefits of marriage, domestic partners will receive many rights upon registration. Domestic partners will now be given the right to visit one another in the hospital and to make medical decisions for each other. The law expands the definition of "immediate family" to include the children and parents of one's domestic partner. In addition, a partner will be able to claim an unemployed partner as a dependent on his or her state tax return. Partners will also qualify for exemption from state inheritance tax on each other's estates. State employees will now be able to obtain health insurance coverage for their partners. Although insurance companies will have to make health insurance available to domestic partners, private employers will not be required to provide this benefit.

Before registering as domestic partners, it is imperative to consider all the implications of registering and to plan accordingly. A domestic partnership gives rights, but also imposes burdens. For instance, domestic partners will have the duty to financially support one another. You cannot marry while registered as a domestic partner. You cannot register with another partner for one hundred and eighty days after dissolving a partnership. Moreover, there are specific causes of action to dissolve domestic partnerships.

Dissolving a partnership will be similar to obtaining a divorce, except that the rights granted to divorcing spouses are not available to separating domestic partners. To dissolve a partnership, partners will have to file a complaint in the Superior Court and prove grounds for dissolution similar to the grounds for divorce. Unlike an actual divorce, the court will not be able to divide property obtained during the partnership, nor can the court decide issues of custody and visitation in a dissolution proceeding. These issues must be resolved through the filing of separate lawsuits if the partners cannot reach an agreement on their own.

Before choosing to register as domestic partners, couples should consider several important issues. First, since partners are now able to make medical decisions for one another, they should discuss their wishes in the event of a medical emergency. Second, couples should investigate the new health insurance options available to them. However, if the partnership later dissolves, one will no longer be able to receive insurance coverage through his or her former partner. In addition, the law does not allow a domestic partner to receive an inheritance from his or her partner in the absence of a will. Domestic partners must therefore consider hiring an estate planner.

Just as a couple contemplating marriage, domestic partners must consider the possibility of the break-up of their partnership. As discussed, a court hearing the dissolution of a partnership cannot divide property obtained by the couple after they have registered as partners. The court also cannot award support in these matters. Thus, much like a couple preparing to marry, domestic partners should consider entering an agreement addressing these and other issues prior to registering. In essence, partners may wish to enter an agreement akin to a prenuptial agreement, a "pre-partnership agreement." Such an agreement should define how property acquired before and during the partnership, whether held jointly or individually, shall later be divided if the partnership is dissolved. In addition, an agreement should state whether one partner shall receive financial support from the other in the event of dissolution of the partnership. The agreement should also address rights to each other's estates, the provision and payment of health insurance, and whether the parties will obtain life insurance designating the other as beneficiary. If partners do seek a dissolution of their relationship, they should each obtain individual legal counsel to safeguard their rights. A pre-partnership agreement may also address responsibility for these attorney's fees.

In conclusion, domestic partners will now be afforded substantial rights. Therefore, before entering a partnership, couples should seriously consider the ramifications. It may be beneficial for potential partners to enter a "pre-partnership agreement" addressing their rights and responsibilities during and, if the partnership dissolves, after the relationship. Domestic partners may wish to seek the aid of an attorney in deciding whether to enter into an agreement, whether or not the intent is to formally register as domestic partners.

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