On Election Day we learned that the majority of Maine voters don’t want to share the word marriage with same-sex couples. Yet polls show that many are willing to share the rights and responsibilities typically accorded to spouses. Maine is in the unique opportunity to launch the experiment of truly civil partnerships for all.
Unique among all 50 states, Maine registers all non-related couples regardless of gender or age. Since 2004, Maine’s statewide domestic partnership registry has been open to any two competent adults who have been living together in Maine for at least 12 months, are each other’s sole domestic partner and expect to remain so, are not related in a fashion that would prohibit marriage, and are not married or in a registered domestic partnership with another person.
This means that all Mainers (is that the right nickname?) in different-sex couples who are willing to boycott marriage in solidarity with same-sex couples can register and have the exact same status legal status as registered same-sex couples. Imagine a well-publicized wave of DP registrations among a wide diversity of couples!
Then imagine the civil rights movement these couples could foment! I’d bet they could rapidly build a political base of support for expanding DP rights. Currently, Maine’s “domestic partners are accorded a legal status similar to that of a married person with respect to matters of probate, guardianships, conservatorships, inheritance, protection from abuse, and related matters.” How quickly could Maine could pass a law modeled on California’s to give DP’s all of the state-based protections and obligations of marriage?
There are important personal risks involved in this strategy. AtMP’s friend Frederick Hertz (an author of Living Together: A Legal Guide for Unmarried Couples, and an attorney who specializes in helping same-sex & unmarried couples) is highly sensitive to the financial costs and legal burdens that could be encountered by any couple that registers as DP’s with the state of California. For example: they have to file state tax returns as married but federal returns as single; they have to go through a state divorce but have no protection from federal double taxation upon transfer of assets; they faced higher property taxes until CA passed a remedial law. When we were exploring this issue back in 2006, he noted that people might opt out of the marital rules by doing a pre-nup, but that costs typically $5,000 or more and would be of limited value when it comes to spousal support, the costs of a dissolution, and joint liability for debts. He felt strongly that most people really don’t understand the negative consequences of registering, and if they want the benefits of marriage, they should marry.
I agree that contradictory layers of legal status are a nightmare. People need to be educated about the legal and financial obligations they are taking on when then enter in to DP (or marriage, for that matter). On the other hand, the reality is that people are seeking out alternatives to marriage. Access to a registered status might be an attractive option not only for boycotters but also for people who feel forced to marry even though they don’t believe marriage is the right status for them, because they need specific protections and benefits. I know several different-sex couples who are remaining unmarried even though it costs them a lot of money in local and federal taxes. The taboo against “marrying for the money” actually bolsters their resolve not to participate in the institution. Some of them might also refuse to register, but others might register despite the costs.
People have already ‘voted with their feet’ by not marrying. Philosophically speaking, non-discriminatory DP registries could be a step toward (a) non-discriminatory marriage and (b) recognition that too many legal and economic factors are being attached to coupledom. Isn’t “we’re all in this together” a better way to create change?