Florida State Law on Domestic Partner Benefits

by Teo Spengler

Before 2015, many states, including Florida, banned same-sex marriages. But more than a few state legislatures enacted laws allowing same-sex and opposite-sex domestic partners to register to receive some legal rights. Florida, however, was not one of them. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court tossed out same-sex marriage bans as unconstitutional, and domestic partnerships became of less importance. Still, a few cities and counties in Florida offer a registration program for domestic partnerships and/or extend benefits to them.

Florida Domestic Partnership Laws

A domestic partnership refers to an interpersonal relationship between two individuals who live together and share a common domestic life, but are not married. These partnerships, which can be between same-sex or opposite-sex couples, are essentially civil unions in which each person is committed to the other. They were designed as a substitute for marriage when marriage is not permitted by a state, as was long the case for same-sex couples in many states. Some jurisdictions, mostly, but not exclusively, those in the West and Northeast, allowed registration of the partnership and mandated that employers treat domestic partners as married in terms of family benefits.

Florida was not one of those states that offered domestic partnership registration. A bill to authorize clerks of the court to create domestic partnership registries died in the judiciary committee in the Florida senate on 2013. A scattering of counties offered some protection to domestic partners. For example, Miami-Dade County created a domestic partner registry and offered hospital and jail visitation rights to partners. But at least 60 counties in Florida did not take any steps to recognize domestic partnerships.

Obergefell and Domestic Partnership in Florida

In June, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the Obergefell case, which challenged the constitutionality of the ban on same-sex marriages. The court found that the laws forbidding same-sex marriages violated the U.S. Constitution. Under that ruling, all states are legally obligated to license same-sex marriages and recognize same-sex marriages entered into in other states.

Very soon after Obergefell was decided, Florida legalized same-sex marriages. Once marriage equality was mandated under federal law, the urgent need for domestic partnerships evaporated. Since marriage is available to all couples, regardless of gender, it is no longer essential to have a program enabling unmarried couples to receive family benefits and have rights under the law. Many employers no longer extend benefits to domestic partners since they can marry if they like.

Some couples prefer to remain domestic partners rather than marry. But the status of domestic partnerships in states, counties and cities remains uncertain and fluid. As of late 2017, some counties in Florida, such as Broward County, continue to extend benefits to domestic partners and also to provide a domestic partner registry. The city of West Palm Beach also extends benefits to domestic partners. But many of the counties and cities that had stepped forward to offer domestic partnership benefits no longer do so.

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About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Spengler splits her time between French Basque Country and California.