Understanding California State and City Domestic Partnerships

As discussed in a previous post, domestic partnerships are defined in California as a union where “two adults who have chosen to share one another’s lives in an intimate and committed relationship of mutual caring.” Various versions of domestic partnerships have been in existence since the late 1990s, paving the way for the historic Obergefell v Hodges, which legalized gay marriage in 2015. While many people are familiar with the basic idea of domestic partnership, it is less well-known that both city and state versions of domestic partnerships exist. In this post, we’ll briefly explore the differences between the two.

State Domestic Partnerships

In California, state domestic partnerships have nearly the same rights and responsibilities as marriage. When compared to other states, California is unique in that it has legislation specifically protecting the rights of domestic partners to be as close as possible to the rights of a married couple. These rights and responsibilities are particularly prominent when: one partner becomes gravely ill or dies; with regards to children, including surrogacy, adoption and child custody; and with regards to discrimination for healthcare, at work, and in other settings. However, state domestic partnerships do NOT have federal rights, international rights, or the same rights in other states. Legally, this makes them significantly weaker than marriages, which are recognized across the country and internationally.

Filing for a state domestic partnership is done through the California Secretary of State. This involves simple forms and a small fee, and has both a public or a confidential option. In fact, the ability to choose a confidential option is a leading reason why LGBT couples sometimes still choose domestic partnerships over marriage.

Domestic partnerships have similar requirements as marriage. To summarize California family code: neither party can be married or in a domestic partnership with someone else; the parties cannot be related by blood; both must be 18 or older (with some exemptions); and both parties must be able to consent. Unlike marriage, state domestic partnerships are only available to couples that are either same-sex, or couples where at least one partner is age 62 or older.

Also like marriages, if those in a state domestic partnership wish to end their relationship, they must choose between gay divorce, annulment, and legal separation.

City Domestic Partnerships

Distinct from the state-level domestic partnership, individual cities may have their own versions of domestic partnerships. They include very few rights and responsibilities, which vary from city to city. For example, the San Francisco domestic partnership is described as “not a marriage but a basic living agreement; also providing additional benefits to City and County of San Francisco employees.”

Unlike the state version, city domestic partnerships are not subject to the same anti-discrimination laws. For example, businesses may not be required to recognize a city-level domestic partner as a spouse and provide the same benefits.

Filing is generally done through the county clerk, and includes a “statement of domestic partnership,” usually alongside optional check boxes describing the relationship, such as “lives together” or “owns real estate together.”


While neither option is as legally strong as marriage, we understand that marriage is not for everyone. For a domestic partnership that has similar state-level rights and responsibilities to marriage in California, a state level domestic partnership is the best option. For a document that simply recognizes a relationship, but without the rights and responsibilities, a city domestic partnership will better suit you. However, if you are considering the second option, you may wish to instead consider a co-habitation agreement, which is a more useful tool to manage a non-marital relationship. Our attorneys, located in Palm Springs and West Hollywood, are skilled at creating such agreements, and specialize in working with the LGBT community. If a co-habitation agreement may be of interest to you, contact us to set up a free, no-commitment consultation to learn more.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon