You asked the question and received the answer you thought you wanted to hear: Your prospective employer offers domestic-partnership benefits. But what does that really mean? Your employer's handbook definition of domestic partnership and its benefits may not match yours.
Am I a Domestic Partner?
Unlike marriage, domestic partnership is not defined by federal law, so it is left to states, counties, cities and individual employers to decide what it means to them.
A business located where no domestic-partner laws exist is free to set any parameters it wants. Although a married employee is rarely even asked to produce a marriage license as proof of the relationship, individuals seeking domestic-partnership benefits are often asked to prove that they and their partners meet many or all of the following criteria:
- Have been together for a specified period of time.
- Are responsible for each other's financial welfare.
- Are not blood relatives.
- Share a home.
- Are at least 18 years of age.
- Are mentally competent.
- Would get legally married should the option become available.
- Are registered as domestic partners if there is a local domestic-partner registry.
- Are not legally married to anyone.
- Have legal power of attorney for each other.
What Are the Benefits?
Again, unless required by local law to offer domestic-partnership benefits identical to those offered to married employees, you shouldn't assume an affirmative answer to your earlier question means you're getting the benefits you think you're getting. In fact, finding out how the company's domestic-partner benefits compare to spousal benefits will tell you a lot about how equality-minded the employer really is.
Is This Equality?
The increasingly widespread adoption of domestic-partnership benefits is certainly an important step toward equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. However, there are still significant differences in legal treatment.
One of the most glaring inequities is taxation on domestic-partnership benefits. Unlike benefits for legal spouses, which are tax-exempt, any benefits employees receive for a domestic partner are taxable as if they were part of the paycheck. A proposal by Congressman James McDermott of Washington to amend the tax code would exclude partnership benefits, but until Congress takes action on the bill, be prepared to see a portion of your paycheck go toward those taxes.
In the meantime, if your employer doesn't offer domestic-partner benefits, don't lose hope. Many professional and political organizations have made this issue a high priority. If you're inclined to try to change things, start by educating yourself.