Marriage & Relationships | Domestic Partnerships & Civil Unions | Massachusetts
Massachusetts Domestic Partnerships & Civil Unions Q&A
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, although these may be phased out now that marriage for same-sex couples is legal nationwide. 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/relationships/.
Does Massachusetts provide domestic partner benefits to state employees?
Generally, no. By the terms of a 1993 Executive Order (Weld, Gov), certain managerial employees of the Commonwealth have expanded leave rights for their partners. But overall, state employees do not have equal access to health benefits or other employee benefits for their partners, and the state pension system does not allow people to name unmarried partners as beneficiaries of an employee’s pension.
Can cities and towns in Massachusetts provide domestic partner health insurance benefits to their own employees?
Probably not. While several cities and towns have done so in the past, a court ruling in 1999 found that Boston did not have the power to expand the reach of the state insurance laws by including domestic partners in the group health system (Connors v. Boston, 430 Mass. 31 (1999)). Amherst has continued its domestic partner program by buying individual health insurance policies for the partners of Amherst employees who previously had group health coverage through the town. Several other cities and towns have also continued to provide coverage.
What kinds of domestic partner benefits may private employers provide?
Private employers can provide any benefits to domestic partners 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.
Can I use the state non-discrimination law to force my employer to provide domestic partnership benefits?
Probably not. Although the non-discrimination law says that an employer can’t discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in terms of compensation, and even though employee benefits are a form of compensation, the law contains an express exemption for employee benefits (Laws 1989, chap. 516, sec. 19). Thus, an employer may provide domestic partner benefits if it chooses to do so, but it probably cannot be forced to do so through the state non-discrimination law.