Does Rhode Island still allow civil unions?

Not anymore. Rhode Island stopped offering civil unions in 2013, but did not automatically convert them to marriage. If you have a civil union (or registered domestic partnership) from Rhode Island or another state, Rhode Island will grant you the same rights and benefits, and hold you to the same responsibilities, as a married couple in Rhode Island. However, with the exception of Social Security, the federal government will not recognize your civil union.

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.  This recognition may be given by a state or municipal governmental entity or by private businesses and organizations.

In the workplace context, employers may set criteria for domestic partnership as a way for employees to obtain certain fringe benefits for their partners and families which were previously limited to married spouses.  The State of Rhode Island, some Rhode Island cities and towns and many private employers in Rhode Island offer domestic partner benefits such as coverage for the partner and his/her children under the employee’s health plan.

In other contexts, “domestic partner” is also a shorthand term for family, replacing “lover,” “friend,” and “roommate.”  Some people call cohabitation agreements “domestic partner agreements.”  See GLAD’s publications on Domestic Partnership for further information at

What domestic partner benefits does Rhode Island offer to state employees?

In the summer of 2001, the Rhode Island legislature made domestic partner benefits available to state employees with respect to health insurance.  It did so by changing the definition of “dependent” in state insurance laws.  In 2006, Rhode Island extended these benefits to include family and medical leave to care for an ill partner (R.I. Gen. Laws § 28-48-1(5)) and COBRA health benefits for a state employee’s domestic partner (R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-12-2.4), and in 2007, the legislature extended pension benefits managed through the Employee Retirement System of Rhode Island, to surviving domestic partners with whom the employee had lived for at least a year and were “financially interdependent” (R.I. Gen. Laws §36-10-40).

In order to qualify for state benefits, both partners must certify by affidavit that (1) both partners are at least 18 years old and mentally competent to contract, (2) that neither partner is married to anyone, (3) that the partners are not related by blood to a degree that would prohibit marriage in the State of Rhode Island, (4) that the partners live together and have lived together for at least one year, (5) that the partners are financially interdependent as evidenced by at least two of the following: (A) a domestic partnership agreement or relationship contract; (B) a joint mortgage or joint ownership of a primary residence; (C) two of these: (i) joint ownership of a motor vehicle; (ii) a joint checking account; (iii) joint credit account; (iv) joint lease; and/or (D) the domestic partner has been designated a beneficiary for the employee’s will, retirement contract or life insurance (see, e.g., R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-12-1(3)). Misrepresentations of information in the affidavit will result in an obligation to repay any benefits received and a fine up to $1000.  Employees are further required to inform the benefits director at their place of employment if and when their relationship ends.

Also, On July 1, 2018, the Healthy and Safe Families and Workplaces Act (R.I. Gen. Laws § 28-5) went into effect requiring employers with 18 or more employees to provide at least one hour of paid sick leave for every 35 hours worked. Employers with fewer than 18 employees must provide sick time, but it does not need to be paid. The law guarantees eligible workers up to 24 hours of sick time per year beginning in 2018 before increasing to a maximum of 32 hours in 2019 and 40 hours in 2020. This law allows employees paid sick leave for themselves or to care for family or anyone they are living with, including a domestic partner.

Are other benefits available to domestic partners of public employees?

Under Rhode Island law, various death benefits or annuities, accidental death benefits or retirement benefits are available to the domestic partners of judges, teachers, police officers, firefighters and some others workers.  If you believe you fall in one of these categories, you should consult a lawyer.

Some Rhode Island cities and towns offer domestic partner benefits such as coverage for the partner and his/her children under the employee’s health plan.

What other protections does state law provide to domestic partners?

In January 2010 the Rhode Island legislature passed legislation (see R.I. Gen. Laws § 5-33.2-24and § 23-4-10) that gives a domestic partner control over the remains and the funeral and burial arrangements of his/her partner provided: (1) the partner meets the definition of domestic partner defined above, and (2) the deceased has not designated another person as his/her “funeral planning agent” as described below in the section “Legal Protections for Same-Sex Couples—Funeral Planning Documents” (R.I. Gen. Laws, § 5-33.2-24(2)(i)). The law was championed by a gay man, Mark Goldberg, who had a five-week battle to claim the body of his partner of 17 years.  Despite near unanimous passage, it took a legislative override of the Governor’s veto to finally enact the law.

Although it is an important step forward to have this protection for domestic partners, it does require that you prove that your relationship meets certain criteria at a time of tragedy.  The better way to achieve this protection is to name your partner as your “funeral planning agent,” as discussed below.  That agent takes precedence over everyone—spouse, domestic partner, and blood relatives.

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.  Private organizations, e.g. a gym, country club, etc., can extend family membership or other family benefits to domestic partners.

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.

In most states, employees must also pay a state income tax on these benefits, but Rhode Island exempts employees from state income tax on health benefits extended to a domestic partner or civil union partner (R.I. Gen. Laws § 44-30-12(c)(6)).

What steps can a couple take to legally safeguard their relationship in Rhode Island?

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: Cohabitation agreements regarding property and finances are a good way for couples to sort out their affairs in writing before a separation. As long as the contract is not about sexual services, it has a good chance of being upheld as valid as long as it complies with the requisites for a valid contract. Bear in mind that, as in any state, specific provisions concerning children may or may not be enforced according to their terms because it is always in the court’s power to determine the best interests of children. (See discussion below concerning parenting agreements.)
  2. Power of Attorney: Any competent person may appoint another person (such as one’s partner) as their “attorney-in-fact” for financial matters in the event that one becomes incapacitated or disabled. The law provides a “short form” which allows you to mark the kinds of transactions you wish your partner (your “attorney-in-fact”) to perform. These include: (a) real estate transactions; (b) chattel and goods transactions; (c) bond, share and commodity transactions; (d) banking transactions; (e) business operating transactions; (f) insurance transactions; (g) claims and litigations; (h) benefits from military service; (i) records, reports and statements; and (j) all other matters. If no such appointment is made, then a “family” member will be empowered to make decisions for the disabled or incapacitated individual. This power of attorney does not include health care decisions.
  3. Health Care Power of Attorney: Since medical care providers look to next of kin to make health care decisions for an incapacitated individual, an unmarried person must appoint a health care agent if he or she wishes another person to make those decisions instead of the family member. Under R.I. Gen. Laws § 23-4.10-2, a person may appoint a health care agent to make decisions — whether for a limited amount of time or indefinitely. The attorney-in-fact may then make decisions for you — either immediately or upon your becoming incompetent to make decisions. Even after you give another person a Health Care Power of Attorney, you may make decisions for yourself if that is what you wish and as long as you are competent to do so. The statute provides a “statutory form” that you can use for your Health Care Power of Attorney.

The power of attorney can specify the authority of the agent to make decisions on your behalf, and also state what kinds of treatments you do not desire, including treatments which might keep you alive. You can also specify your wishes regarding organ and tissue gifts after death.

The power of attorney must be signed either by one notary public or by two witnesses. None of these signers may be your designated or alternate agent; a health care provider or a health care provider employee; or the operator of a community care facility or an employee of such a facility. The power of attorney can be revoked at any time by creating a new power of attorney or by a clear expression of revocation. People often give a copy to their doctors and sometimes to family members.

  1. Living Will: Within a durable power of attorney for health care, language may be inserted stating what the individual wishes regarding termination of life support, preferences for types of medical care, or limits on the agent’s authority.
  2. Will: Without a will, a deceased unmarried person’s property passes to: (1) their children; (2) their family; (3) if next of kin cannot be located, to the state. If you wish to provide for others, such as your partner, a will is essential. Even if you have few possessions, you can name in the will who will administer your estate. If you have children, you can nominate their future guardian in a will.
  3. Funeral Planning Documents: Rhode Island permits a person to name another as his or her “funeral planning agent” with sole responsibility and authority to make any and all arrangements and decisions about funeral services, and burial or disposition of remains, including cremation. The document must be signed by the individual and should be notarized. To prevent any disputes with family members, it is preferable to give the instructions to the person you want to take care of matters, as well as to family members.

Even absent these documents, a surviving same-sex partner who can prove that their relationship satisfied the state criteria for being “domestic partners” (read the “Domestic Partnership” section above) can also assume control of the funeral and burial process.

However, this requires proving certain facts about your relationship at a time of tragedy and does not control if someone else has been appointed as the “funeral planning agent.” The best way to ensure that your partner is able to make these decisions is to name your partner your “funeral planning agent.”

In 2018, Rhode Island passed a law that requires the death certificate to reflect the gender identity of the decedent as reported by the next of kin, or the best qualified person, or by a document memorializing the decedent’s wishes. To ensure that this happens, it is best to give the person you appoint as your “funeral planning agent” a notarized document that attests to your gender identity.

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, the terms of a Relationship or Partnership Agreement/Contract will come into play if the couple has one. Absent an agreement, couples can get involved in costly and protracted litigation about property and financial matters but without the divorce system to help them sort through it. The Rhode Island Supreme Court has recognized that, under some circumstances, contract theories and equitable principles may apply to address the property and financial matters of a separating same-sex couple even without a written agreement.80 Written agreements offer vastly greater security, however, providing the court with a roadmap as to the intentions of the parties.

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.

What standards should same-sex couples with children who are breaking up maintain?

Same-sex couples with children who are breaking up should:

  1. Support the rights of LGBTQ+ parents;
  2. Honor existing relationships regardless of legal labels;
  3. Honor the children’s existing parental relationships after the break-up;
  4. Maintain continuity for the children;
  5. Seek a voluntary resolution;
  6. Remember that breaking up is hard to do;
  7. Investigate allegations of abuse;
  8. Not allow the absence of agreements or legal relationships to determine outcomes;
  9. Treat litigation as a last resort; and
  10. Refuse to resort to homophobic/transphobic laws and sentiments to achieve a desired result.

For more detailed information about these standards see the publication Protecting Families: Standards for LGBTQ+ Families at: Protecting Families: Standards for LGBTQ+ Families