What is domestic partnership?

Although it is a term used in many contexts, “domestic partnership” most often means a status which recognizes an unmarried couple and their children as a family for certain limited purposes, most commonly employee benefits. Some states, cities, and towns have also enacted domestic partner laws. In other contexts, “domestic partner” is a shorthand term for family, replacing “lover,” “friend,” and “roommate.” Some people call cohabitation agreements “domestic partner agreements.” For further information see GLAD publications on domestic partnership at: www.glad.org/rights/publications/c/relationsips/.

Does New Hampshire provide domestic partner benefits to state employees?

In May 2006, the Merrimack County Superior Court ruled in Bedford and Breen v. New Hampshire Technical College System, a case filed by GLAD, that the denial of insurance and leave benefits to the families of two New Hampshire state employees constituted both disparate treatment and disparate impact violations of the New Hampshire law against sexual orientation discrimination in employment.  Although the State of New Hampshire appealed this case to the New Hampshire Supreme Court, the State dropped its appeal in May 2007, in light of the passage of the civil union law, which requires that civil union spouses of state workers be provided access to health benefits, and the collective bargaining decision to extend benefits to the domestic partners of state workers.

Can cities and towns in New Hampshire provide domestic partner health insurance benefits to their own employees?

Yes, and some do.

What kinds of domestic partner benefits may private employers provide?

Private employers can provide to domestic partners any benefits they wish – whether health insurance, family medical or bereavement leave, equal pension benefits, relocation expenses, or access to company facilities.

However, even when employers provide these benefits, federal laws sometimes treat domestic partner benefits differently from spousal benefits, often with financial consequences. For example, employees must pay federal income tax on a domestic partner’s health insurance benefits, but spousal benefits are exempt (see Internal Revenue Code, Private Letter Ruling 9603011 (Jan. 19, 1996)). Similarly, while spousal consent is required if a married employee decides to name a third party as a pension beneficiary or survivor benefits recipient, an employee with a domestic partner can change these designations freely.

What steps can a couple take to legally safeguard their relationship in New Hampshire?

There are various legal documents that can protect a couple’s relationship, regardless of whether the couple has no formal legal relationship or is already in a marriage.

  1. Relationship Agreement or Contract: A couple has the option of drafting a written cohabitation agreement, outlining their respective rights with regards to property, finances, and other aspects of their relationship. Although the New Hampshire Supreme Court has not yet ruled on the subject, these agreements should be enforced like any other contract. A number of states, Massachusetts included, explicitly enforce cohabitation agreements. Although a couple can choose to use a cohabitation agreement to make plans for the custody and support of children, a New Hampshire court will not uphold any agreement it finds to contravene the child’s best interests.
  2. Durable Power of Attorney: A couple can choose to grant each other the durable power of attorney, allowing one partner to make financial decisions on the other’s behalf in the event of incapacity or disability. The requirements are minimal: any competent person may appoint another person as their “attorney-in-fact,” although the power of attorney form must be signed and notarized. If no appointment is made, a family member will be empowered to make decisions for the incapacitated individual.
  3. Advance Directive for Health Care: A couple can choose to each create an “advance directive,” allowing them to make medical decisions on one another’s behalf in the event of an emergency. Absent an advance directive, medical care providers look to next- of-kin to make health care decisions for an incapacitated individual. If an unmarried couple wants to make decisions for one another, they need an advance directive.

An advance directive has two parts: a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care and a Living Will. In the Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care, you appoint a person to act as your health care agent and make medical decisions for you when you are incapacitated. You may also express your desires about end of life issues, including nutrition, hydration, and other life-sustaining treatments. The Living Will is a short statement about whether you want life-sustaining treatment continued when you are near death or permanently unconscious. You should give a copy of the advance directive to your doctors and may also consider giving it to family members.

An advance directive may either be signed by yourself and two witnesses, or signed by just yourself in the presence of a notary public. The following individuals do not count as witnesses: your spouse or heir, beneficiaries under any will or trust you may have, and the person you are appointing as your health care agent. Only one witness can be an employee of your healthcare provider. An advance directive can only be revoked by you.

If you later become incapacitated and a guardian is appointed for you, the appointing court should not revoke your health care agent’s authority unless there is clear and convincing evidence that doing so would be in your best interests.

  1. Will: Without a will, a deceased unmarried person’s property passes to: (1) their children; (2) their family; or (3) if next-of-kin cannot be located, to the state. If you wish to provide for others not on this list, such as your partner, a will is essential. Even if you have few possessions, you can name who will administer your estate in your will. If you have children, you can also nominate someone to be their future guardian in a will.
  2. Funeral Planning Documents: Upon death, a person’s body is given to his or her next-of-kin. This can mean that a person’s own partner has no right to remove the body or make plans for a final resting place. To avoid confusion and persuade relatives to honor your wishes, you can leave explicit written directions giving another person (such as your partner or a friend) control over the funeral and burial arrangements. While this document is not binding, it should help avoid complications in any but the most adversarial families. Some people include these instructions as part of a will, but since a will may not be found for days after death, it is preferable to give the instructions directly to the person you want to take care of matters, as well as to family members.
  3. Guardianship: New Hampshire’s broad guardianship laws allow, among other things, an individual to nominate another person as the guardian of their person, estate, or both.68 The advantage of nominating a guardian in advance is that you are selecting the person to take over all aspects of your financial matters.

Does a person need an attorney to get these documents?

GLAD recommends working with an attorney on these documents.

Although forms are available, the form may not be suited to your individual needs and wishes. Moreover, an attorney may be able to better help effectuate your goals, for example, by drafting a will in a way which is more likely to deter a will contest by unhappy family members, or an appointment of a health care agent with very specific instructions. In addition, an attorney may help to navigate the legal uncertainties flowing from the areas of overlap between these documents. GLAD Answers can provide referrals to attorneys who are members of GLAD’s Lawyer Referral Service.

If an unmarried couple separates, what is the legal status of a relationship or partnership agreement/contract?

Upon separation, if the couple has a Relationship or Partnership Agreement/Contract, its terms will be invoked, and the couple’s assets will be divided as per the agreement. Without an agreement, unmarried couples may be forced to endure costly and protracted litigation over property and financial matters.

PLEASE NOTE: If you have changed your mind about who should be your “attorney-in-fact,” health care representative, beneficiary or executor under a will, funeral planner, conservator, or designee under a designation document, then those documents should be revoked—with notice to all persons who were given copies of those documents—and new documents should be prepared which reflect your present wishes.

Does New Hampshire still allow civil unions?

Not anymore. Effective January 1, 2010, New Hampshire stopped issuing civil union licenses; and effective January 1, 2011, all existing New Hampshire civil unions were converted into marriages by operation of law. If you have a civil union (or registered domestic partnership) from another state, New Hampshire will grant you the same rights and benefits, and hold you to the same responsibilities, as a married couple in New Hampshire. However, with the exception of Social Security, the federal government will not recognize your civil union.