Domestic Partnership, Civil Unions, and Property Problems in Maryland

Happy lesbian couple relaxing on sofa in living room, concept for domestic partnership.

The number of people choosing to live together without going through a formal marriage is rising every year. But non-marriage alternatives like civil unions and domestic partnership are imperfect replacements for a legal marriage. Before you decide to skip filing a marriage license, be sure you understand the property problems presented by civil unions and domestic partnerships in Maryland.

Who Can Get Married in Maryland?

In Maryland, two individuals can be legally married if they:

  • Are both 18 years old or older (a 16 or 17 year old can be married with parental consent and/or proof of pregnancy)
  • Are not married to anyone else
  • Are not too closely related to one another
  • Obtain a marriage license in the county where the wedding will be performed
  • Wait at least 24 hours after obtaining the marriage license (but not more than 6 months)

Same-sex marriage has been legal in Maryland since 2012, when the state passed the Civil Marriage Protection Act, changing Maryland law to allow “a marriage between two individuals” rather than between a man and a woman.

What are Domestic Partnerships

Maryland law also allows couples to enter into a domestic partnership, as an alternative to marriage. The domestic partnership law was created in 2008, and it creates a committed relationship between two people who live together but are not married. It forms a kind of domestic contract where the domestic partners agree to depend on each other and contribute to the maintenance and support of one another and the relationship. It is formed by signing an affidavit together and providing proof of cohabitation and mutual support.

The best proof of intent to form a domestic partnership is a domestic partnership agreement. This is a contract signed by both partners, laying out how they intend to share finances and assets, and to work together to form a single household. It also includes provisions for what they want to happen if the partnership breaks down or one partner dies. (However, separate estate planning documents must be signed to actually convey property to the domestic partner).

Domestic partners are entitled to many of the same benefits as spouses, including the ability to:

  • Visit each other in jails and hospitals
  • Share a room in a nursing home
  • Make funeral and burial decisions for one another
  • Transfer the couple’s primary residence between partners tax-free
  • Assert certain housing rights

Domestic partners may also get married to one another without first terminating the domestic partnership.

Can You Get a Civil Union in Maryland?

There is no law allowing Maryland residents to enter a civil union. Domestic partnerships fill this role. However, Maryland will recognize a civil union entered under another state’s laws. Maryland family courts will also dissolve a civil union entered in another state in a divorce action, with some limitations.

Domestic Partnerships and Civil Unions Raise Property Problems in Maryland

Domestic partnerships allow unmarried couples to share finances and raise children together, but they don’t provide all the same protections as legal marriage. The same is true for civil unions. This can create problems dividing property when these non-marriage relationships break down.

In a divorce, Maryland residents are entitled to an equitable division of all marital property, including houses, vehicles, bank accounts, personal property, business interests, and retirement assets. This applies no matter whose name the property is held under. Unlike married couples, domestic partners’ rights to jointly titled real property is defined by how that property is titled. One domestic partner is not automatically entitled to an equitable division of property accumulated by the other partner during the domestic partnership. The same is true to members of a civil union.

Similarly, married couples can transfer assets back and forth between them without any tax consequences. While Maryland domestic partnership law applies this same rule to a domestic partnership’s primary residence (as long as it is titled to both partners as joint tenants), other property, including vehicles, rental properties, or retirement assets, could come with tax consequences when those properties are divided.

Finally, the division of a domestic partnership’s assets is generally governed by the couple’s agreement. While some couples enter formal domestic partnership agreements, many do not. Without that contract, domestic partners can lose out on many of the property rights they would have had simply by filing a marriage license instead of a domestic partnership affidavit.

There are many good reasons to choose a domestic partnership over a legal marriage. However, you should know your rights – and what rights you are giving up – before making that choice. A well-drafted domestic partnership agreement can give committed life partners many of the same rights as married couples, particularly when paired with Maryland’s domestic partnership laws. Before you decide to skip the marriage license, speak with a Maryland family lawyer to learn more about the property problems in domestic partnerships, and how you can create a contract to avoid them.

Property division can be challenging in a traditional marriage. A domestic partnership makes many of those problems even harder. If you are considering entering a domestic partnership and need an attorney to prepare an agreement, or if you signed a domestic partnership affidavit and now that relationship has broken down, we can help. The Law Office of Shelly M. Ingram is able to help you reach a resolution that works for your family. Call us at (301) 658-7354 or contact us here to schedule a consultation at our Howard County family law firm located in the Maple Lawn business district of Fulton, Maryland. We look forward to working with you.