In CA, Domestic Partnerships Decline as Marriage Soars

by Matthew S. Bajko
Saturday Dec 21, 2013

California domestic partnerships dipped during the second half of 2013 compared to the same time period in 2012, as the demand for marriage licenses has increased since decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court in late June led state officials to offer federally recognized same-sex marriages.

According to data provided to the Bay Area Reporter by the office of Secretary of State Debra Bowen, whose staff oversees the state's domestic partnership registry, from July through December 2012, there were 2,592 new domestic partnership declarations in California.

From July through November 2013 there were 1,055 new domestic partnership declarations in California. Should the state record the 400 domestic partnership declarations it typically does during the month of December, it would still mark a significant decrease this year since same-sex couples gained the right to wed compared to the same time period last year.

According to the California Department of Public Health, which tallies the number of marriage license applications issued throughout the Golden State, in July this year there were 30,799 applications versus the 22,749 issued during July 2012. Due to a lag time in receiving marriage license application data from the state's 58 counties, the state health agency has yet to report the totals for the remaining months of 2013.

The state does not record information on the gender of the married couples, so it is not known how many of the licenses were obtained by same-sex couples, said agency spokesman Matt Conens.

"Note that demographic data, including gender and ethnicity, are not captured on the marriage records and are therefore not available for analysis or display," Conens told the B.A.R.

Nicole Winger, a spokeswoman for Bowen, told the B.A.R. that the majority of the domestic partnership filings with the state office are from same-sex couples. But the office can't pinpoint the resumption of same-sex marriages in California since June 28 as the reason for the decrease it has seen this fall in DP filings.

"We don't analyze data trends at the secretary of state's office," said Winger. "There are so many factors that go into a couple's decision to register as a domestic partner. We can't draw a straight line between the numbers."

Marriage equality advocates, however, do attribute the dip in DP numbers to the court's rulings in June, which on a technicality overturned California's ban against same-sex marriage known as Proposition 8 and, in a separate case, struck down a portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that paved the way for federal rights to be granted to married same-sex couples.

"The fact that the domestic partnership numbers would be diminished now that marriage is available as an option to same-sex couples is utterly unsurprising," said Kate Kendell, the executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. "I think many couples who choose to make a legal commitment are willing and wish to have that commitment be marriage for a number of reasons."

At the same time, Kendell said it is important that domestic partner registries at the state, county, or city level remain in place as not every couple wants to or is ready to marry but does want to access the heath benefits and other rights that come with being registered domestic partners.

"Even as I understand the emotional, social, and practical reasons for a couple choosing marriage over domestic partnership, I think it is enormously important to fight for domestic partnerships to be an available option," said Kendell. "So when we have heard of states eliminating domestic partnerships, or companies eliminating benefits for domestic partners, I think that is a mistake."

San Francisco couple Nicholas Marley, 26, and Jeremiah Crank, 33, opted to become domestic partners in late July to be able to add Crank to Marley's employer-provided health insurance. Together nearly two years, and having lived together for the past year, entering into a domestic partnership "made more sense," said Marley, at this point in their relationship.

"We decided we are definitely committed but I didn't think we were ready to do the whole marriage thing," added Marley. "This was marriage-lite. It seemed fitting to where we were at in our relationship."

They were among the 262 domestic partnerships filed with the San Francisco county clerk between June 28 and December 12. It was a slight decline from the 310 domestic partnerships filed with the clerk between July 1 and December 31 in 2012.

Unlike with the state DP registry, which is limited to any same-sex couple 18 years of age or older or to heterosexual couples where one person is 62 and receiving Social Security benefits, San Francisco's local DP registry is open to any couple no matter their sexual orientation who is 18 years of age living together and providing for one another.

Due to that, the clerk's office expects new DP numbers for the year will remain relatively stable at around 600 per year going forward.

"There are couples not quite ready to take that plunge into marriage," said county clerk Karen Hong Yee, "and find domestic partnership accomplishes" gaining some protections.

Spurred on by DOMA case
John Lewis, with Marriage Equality USA, said he has been somewhat surprised by the increasing number of same-sex couples who have been in domestic partnerships or civil unions who are now deciding to marry.

"We all knew that the DOMA case was very important. But what I hadn't quite realized was how the victory in the DOMA case was going to spur so many more people to get married," said Lewis. "For same-sex couples who might have just stayed in a domestic partnership, in respect to state rights, it gave them a powerful additional reason to get married because under federal law a state-sanctioned domestic partnership or civil union will not provide the couple with the same protections as being married."

That was what spurred Oakland couple Luis Hernandez and Luciano Hernandez, domestic partners for the past 13 years, to wed under the Rotunda at San Francisco's City Hall last Friday, December 13.

"We started talking since June about if we would get married," said Luis Hernandez.

They decided to wed, said Luciano Hernandez, because they wanted all the rights they deserve "as a human being, as a person."

They were just one of the many same-sex couples to exchange their vows in San Francisco this year. The city has seen a surge in demand for marriage licenses ever since the county clerk's office stayed open during Pride weekend and married 500 couples in two days.

The city allows applicants to disclose their gender on the marriage license forms, so Assessor-Recorder Carmen Chu's office has processed 2,717 same-sex marriage licenses between June 28 and December 12 of this year.

That outpaced the 2,219 heterosexual couples that married during the same time frame. Another 637 couples that opted not to disclose their genders also wed for a total of 5,573.

It was a marked increase over the 4,328 marriage licenses recorded between June 28 and December 12, 2012 when same-sex couples were barred from legally marrying.

"San Francisco, overall, is a destination for marriages in general," said Chu.

She noted that 51 percent of the marriages during that time frame were among couples where neither person was from San Francisco. Among the same-sex couples 58 percent were not from the city.

"It is showing to us there is definitely an interest to come to San Francisco to be married overall and even more so for same-sex couples," said Chu. "If people have found someone they want to spend the rest of their life with, we are happy to be a part of it."

To handle the increased wedding demands the San Francisco County Clerk's office, as of July 1, added two additional appointment slots per hour. To alleviate wait times, couples seeking wedding licenses and those who also want to have their ceremony at City Hall that day need to book an appointment online beforehand and can do so 90 days in advance.

"We are super busy," said Yee, who has been the director of the San Francisco County Clerk's office since 2006.

The workload, at times said Yee, feels like "we are the only county in all of California" where people want to get married. The clerk has hired six people since June on a part-time basis due to the demand and is waiting for a new civil service test to be administered so she can fill four full-time vacancies.

Part of the reason, said Yee, is due to the city's involvement in the fight for marriage equality since 2004, when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom bucked state law and opened City Hall up to marry same-sex couples.

In addition to that history, the building's interior provides a dramatic backdrop for wedding ceremonies and the cost at $77 is economical for many couples, noted Yee.

"Fresno has a perfectly good county clerk but they want to come up to San Francisco to get married," she said.

With couples living in states that don't recognize same-sex marriage flocking to town to wed in order to gain access to federal benefits, Yee doesn't believe her office will see a slowdown anytime soon. As of December 12 this year 544 same-sex couples from out of state wed in San Francisco, with an additional 22 such couples from a different country.

"It is never going to go back to normal because our market got larger. Before we were only marrying opposite sex couples. Now, with same-sex marriage, we have a whole new market that opened up," said Yee. "We are also busier because it is not available in every state."

Fridays are the most popular day of the week. January is already completely booked on those days through the end of the month, with just 25 percent availability remaining on January 31.

"That is much better than where we were in September, when it was five weeks out to get a Friday appointment," Yee said.

On average there is a two-week waiting period to secure a time slot. For those couples needing to marry sooner their best bet is Tuesdays, the least popular day.

The new year may bring some relief, said Yee, as many same-sex couples may have raced to wed by the end of the year in order to file their taxes jointly.

"We are trying to see if people want to get married by the end of 2013 to get married for the tax benefits or is it really a continuing demand going forward," she said. "It looks like it may be just leveling off a little bit yet."

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