Several states provide limited legal status to unmarried couples.
The rights and responsibilities granted vary widely from state to state. Hawaii grants limited rights to two people who register as “reciprocal beneficiaries” and Colorado makes avail-able a limited set of rights to two people who register as designated beneficiaries Cities and counties also have registries for domestic partnerships or provide other recognition for unmarried partners, which generally give partners just a few rights that are recognized only by the city or county.
For those couples who opt not to marry—or are unable to because of prior existing marriages—there are alternatives to marriage, some of which provide all of the benefits and burdens of marriage, and others that provide limited benefits and burdens. Civil union and domestic partnership are each a type of separate legal status providing a range of the rights and responsibilities afforded couples under various state laws. The level of rights and responsibilities conferred by a civil union or registered domestic partnership varies widely. Some states provide limited rights and responsibilities and others are known as “everything but marriage” statutes.
Civil Unions and Domestic Partnerships
The arrangement known as a civil union was first offered in Denmark on October 1, 1989. It is available in the U.S. in Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, and New Jersey. Civil unions were available in Vermont until September 1, 2009, and did not automatically convert to marriage. Domestic partnership was also repealed in the District of Columbia in 2009. Civil unions were available in Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Delaware, until they recognized same-sex marriages. Civil unions in those states automatically converted to marriage or are convertible by choice.
In addition, the following jurisdictions maintain domestic partnership registries:
New Jersey (in addition to civil union)
Washington (only couples where one member is over age 62)
Common Law Marriage
This arrangement is only recognized in a few states and the District of Columbia, and some states recognize common law marriages law-fully entered into in other states. While the standards in each of the jurisdictions are different, they generally require:
intent and an express mutual agreement to be married;
capacity by both parties to make such an agreement);
cohabitation, which in some states is also described as an exclusive relationship; and
that the parties must hold themselves out publicly as married to each other.
Revenue Ruling 58-66 18 recognized that if a marriage (including one under common law) is recognized by the state where it was entered into, then it will be recognized for federal purposes, in spite of the fact that some states refuse to give full faith and credit to com-mon law marriages. Some same-sex couples are now eligible to claim common law married status.
The key legal inquiry as to whether a common law marriage existed is whether the couple held themselves out to the public as married in a jurisdiction recognizing common law marriages. In a few recent cases, the courts have been willing to recognize common-law marriages, even if entered into before the Obergefell decision.
Those Still Unable to Marry
Neither Windsor nor Obergefell extend to tribal lands.