Advice: Difference between marriage and domestic partnership

Answers to your real-life legal problems

Dear Yetta,

My partner and I can’t decide whether to get married, and in the year that it’s been legal in New York, the conversation has been getting more real. We’re not sure marriage is for us—it feels like an exclusive club that, even with “equal marriage,” still devalues certain relationships. So if we don’t get married, what should we do? What’s the difference between marriage and domestic partnership?

Sincerely, Mary

Dear Mary,

When you get married, you have a relationship the law recognizes and therefore knows what to do with. You get a slew of obligations and rights—inheritance, hospital visitation, medical decisions—by filing a marriage certificate. Not so for unmarried couples, so it’s important to have documents in place to ensure the law can’t brush your relationship aside.

If you choose not to get married, you can ensure your rights with a healthcare proxy, a power of attorney, a will, and a domestic partnership agreement (a DPA). A healthcare proxy settles medical decisions, like who you want to make decisions about your care in the event that you can’t. A Power of Attorney is similar, except it deals with who makes decisions about your money and property when you’re unable to. A will is important regardless of your marital status—it makes a terrible time easier because it answers the questions that come up when you die. Without a will, your estate will pass to your blood relatives and not your partner; even if you don’t have much money, it could mean the difference between your partner keeping your dog, or your dog going to your elderly parents or your sister across the country.

A DPA is similar to a prenup. It can do a lot of things, like delineate which property is shared and which isn’t. It can settle most of the financial questions that come up when a relationship ends, especially a long relationship with some financial overlap between you and your partner. You can even write the DPA that, should you get married, becomes a prenuptial agreement.

If you have more questions like this, I’ve teamed up with The Center, Wells Fargo and New York Life for a series of panels called “Fierce, Financially Fit, and Fabulous.” Check Facebook for dates at and join me at the event.

Good luck,

Email questions to to or call 212-253-6911.

*This column is not a consultation with an attorney and should in no way be construed as such or as a substitute for such consultation. Anyone with legal issues or concerns should seek the advice of her own attorney.

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