WA State Registered Domestic Partnerships Convert to Legal Marriages on June 30, 2014
by Eleanor Doermann
The Washington State Legislature enacted registered domestic partnership in 2007 to fill two overlapping but different needs. The first was to provide a way for same sex couples who could not legally marry at the time to have some of the legal benefits of marriage. The second was to provide any older couple (at least one partner age 62 or older, same or opposite sex) with a way to have some of the benefits of marriage without jeopardizing certain federal benefits. Most Washingtonians know that in 2012, the Washington State Legislature passed and the Governor signed marriage equality into law. The new law survived a ballot initiative challenge, and when the votes were counted there was partying in the streets. Same-sex couples began marrying on December 6, 2012.
This was an amazing moment in Washington history. It meant that LGBT couples in Washington no longer must settle for a “separate but equal” status, as some have viewed Washington’s prior “everything but marriage” approach to registered domestic partnership. However many Washingtonians still do not know that the new law also includes a provision to automatically convert existing registered domestic partnerships to legal marriage three months from now on June 30, 2014. In addition the date of the converted marriage will be retroactive to registration. It is important to note this automatic conversion does not apply to partnerships where at least one partner is 62 or older. These couples can choose marriage or remain registered domestic partners.
Since 2012 many registered domestic partners have held joyous legal wedding ceremonies rather than to wait to be rolled over. Other long-established couples are perfectly happy that they do not need to plan a new event to establish the status that has been in their hearts all along. Ironically however, not all registered domestic partners want to be married, and for some LGBT folks in this situation, the upcoming automatic marriage rollover has created some dicey surprises, including the following. First, some find it troublesome that the State can change the legal definition of a relationship after it has been entered into. Even though registered domestic partnership in Washington was already “everything but marriage,” some people see or feel a big difference between domestic partnership and marriage, something opponents of marriage equality have tried to argue all along. For example, a couple registering in 2007 when it first became possible was only signing up for certain hospital visitation and inheritance rights, not the full meal deal. Second, domestic partnership is essentially a legal workaround that has evolved over the last several decades, with less cultural history behind it than marriage. Its grayer emotional meaning leaves more room for partners to hold different ideas of what it means to them, where marriage seems to demand greater shared clarity, which not all partnerships have weathered. Third, some former domestic partners who ended their relationship have not realized they also need to dissolve their legal status, or that doing so involves full divorce proceedings. Fast forward to 2014, and these former couples face conversion of the defunct relationship into a legal marriage on June 30. This could be particularly uncomfortable if either partner is now married to someone else.
These are just a few of the scenarios created by this lesser-known provision of the new law. If you find yourself in such a quandary, you can take comfort in the fact that you are not the only one, and this is a byproduct of a legacy of discrimination which the LGBT community still must deal with. However that does not mean your issue will just go away if you ignore it. Part of the marriage equality package is that the law now has more to say about LGBT relationships than it did in the past. June 30, 2014 is an important deadline just around the corner, but it is not too late to take action if you need to. A registered domestic partnership will not be converted to marriage if a petition for dissolution is filed in Superior Court by that date.
Disclaimer: This information is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed, professional attorney regarding your specific situation.
Eleanor Doermann is an attorney providing estate and life planning services for all ages and stages of life, and public benefits advocacy. As a long-time member of the Seattle LGBT community, she has a special interest in and passion for educating individuals and couples about the ramifications of post-DOMA marriage equality law. Eleanor came to the practice of law after a 25-year-career as a physical therapist. She opened Pathway Law, PC in south King County in 2013. You can learn more at www.pathwaylaw.net or by calling 206-499-3289.