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After Windsor, are domestic partnerships obsolete?

The question is both rhetorical and practical. As more and more states legalize same-sex marriage, pundits are questioning whether domestic partnerships have become obsolete. Domestic partnerships were never a "marriage alternative," at least to same-sex marriage advocates: Most states limited the benefits of domestic partnerships to the right to be recognized as next-of-kin in a health care emergency.

Employers have been more liberal with the benefits offered to domestic partners. Indeed, domestic partnership was often treated as a marriage alternative in the workplace. The same benefits that married couples enjoyed were extended to domestic partners, either same-sex or opposite-sex. If you and your significant other met the criteria laid out by the employer, you qualified for many, if not all, married couple benefits.

Changing jobs, though, was a risk: You could lose those benefits. The same was true if you moved out of the city or the state. In Minnesota, for example, domestic partnerships are recognized in a handful of cities but not at the state level. Leave a city job in Minneapolis for one in an out-state community, and your domestic partner would have the same rights a roommate would have -- none.

The federal government took an agency-by-agency approach to benefits for domestic partners. The Department of State, for example, instituted a policy in 2009 that extended some benefits to same-sex partners of Foreign Service employees. After that, the Office of Personnel Management extended certain benefits to same-sex partners of all federal employees. It has been a patchwork approach, a little difficult to navigate, but it has been better than nothing.

With the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in U.S. v. Windsor in 2013, the federal government recognized same-sex marriages for all federal purposes. A marriage is a marriage is a marriage.

But that put some agencies in the position of having two options for same-sex partners and just one for opposite-sex partners. That hardly seemed fair, and it was burdensome or confusing or both to manage. As a result, the State Department recently decided to do away with benefits for domestic partnerships of Foreign Service employees.

The announcement was not received well. We'll explain in our next post.

Sources:

Washington Blade, "EXCLUSIVE: State Dept. considers phasing out DP benefits," Michael K. Lavers, Jan. 14, 2015

U.S. Office of Personnel Management, "Frequently Asked Questions Same Sex Domestic Partner Benefits," accessed online Jan. 15, 2015

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