Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

An Exploratory Investigation of Heterosexual Licensed Domestic Partners

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

An Exploratory Investigation of Heterosexual Licensed Domestic Partners

Article excerpt

In-depth telephone interviews were conducted in four cities in an exploratory study of 23 licensed cohabitors to determine why they have chosen to legitimize their intimate unions through domestic partnership ordinances, rather than through legal marriage. The cohabitors in this sample are pursuing these licensed partnerships to obtain an economic benefit (e.g., health insurance coverage for a partner); as a substitute for legal remarriage; to legitimize their unions in a way other than through legal marriage; or as an ideological alternative to legal marriage. Regardless of motivations to pursue domestic partnership certificates, these respondents are divided over whether they should have the same rights and responsibilities as the married.

Key Words: cohabitation, domestic partnerships.

The tremendous growth in the incidence and prevalence of heterosexual cohabitation since the 1960s is well documented (e.g., Bumpass & Lu, 2000; Cherlin, 1992). For most couples, cohabitation is a short-term arrangement, typically followed by legal marriage. Some couples either ignore or reject legal marriage, however, and live in cohabiting unions as a more or less permanent alternative to marriage.

Some of these couples choose to license their cohabiting unions through domestic partnership ordinances, which have been implemented over the last 20 years in eight counties, approximately 50 cities, and in three states: Hawaii in 1997; California in 1999 (same-sex only); and Vermont in 2000 (same-sex only, referred to as civil unions; Duncan, 2001; Williams & Bowen, 2000; see the Human Rights Campaign web site for a list, www.hrc.org). Other municipalities are continuing to introduce such legislation. Implementation also is being considered at the federal level, with a bill entitled the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act of 2001, which is currently under committee review (Human Rights Campaign, n.d.; Laffie, 2001).

Similar to unlicensed cohabitation, these ordinances typically define partners as two financially interdependent adults who live together and share an intimate bond, but are not related in the traditional sense of blood or law (Ames, Sulavik, Joseph, Beachy, & Park, 1992; Bowman & Cornish, 1992; Duncan, 2001). Unlike unlicensed cohabitors, however, licensed couples typically are required to complete an affidavit stating that they are not already biologically or legally related to each other or legally married to someone else, that they agree to be mutually responsible for each other's welfare, and that they will notify the city if there is a change in the relationship (dissolution or legal marriage). The affidavit is then either submitted to the city clerk's office, or, in some jurisdictions, may be notarized in order to register the partnership (Whitacre, 1991). In most cities, a new domestic partnership may be registered only after at least six months have passed following the termination of the immediately prior one (Bowman & Cornish; Duncan; Wisensale & Heckart, 1993; Worsnop, 1992). Other than this difference, dissolving a licensed partnership is no different legally from dissolving any other type of cohabiting relationship with respect to property division, partner support, and so on (Durst, 1997).

The original purpose of domestic partnership ordinances was to grant public acknowledgment to homosexual unions, for which legal marriage has never been an option in the United States (Bowman & Cornish, 1992; Whitacre, 1991). Despite this original purpose, however, heterosexual cohabitors have also needed legal acknowledgment of their relationships, particularly prior to the 1980s, when cohabitors were regarded as "legal strangers to each other" (Glendon, 1989, p. 253). This lack of legal recognition was particularly problematic for cohabiting women when their unions dissolved and they and their partners disagreed on matters pertaining to property division and support (popularly referred to as palimony; see Marvin v. …

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