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Marriage & Relationships | Domestic Partnerships & Civil Unions | Rhode Island

Rhode Island 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.  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)).