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Washington state legislature on verge of approving gay marriage

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire's recent endorsement of the gay-marriage bill brings same sex couples in Spokane and across the state one step closer to being able to legally wed.

Many such couples would consider this a chance to formalize existing commitments. Some of these couples may already be registered in a domestic partnership, and these couples may wonder just how their legal rights would change if they were to wed. 

In Washington, domestic partners have many - but not all - of the same rights and responsibilities of married couples.

The same is true when it comes to ending a relationship. Domestic partnership dissolution knows no gender. Decades of precedents have established the vested interests partners have in each other's success, or the established dependency one partner may have developed on another, even when they are not married. When such relationships do not work out, or when behavior of one partner threatens the physical or emotional health of another, courts recognize that de facto commitments in domestic partnerships exceed the mere fact of their living together.

Since gender does not matter in such relationships, heterosexual couples, LGBT couples, or simply people sharing residences for extended periods may have claims for support when those relationships no longer prove viable.

Legal issues involved in domestic partnership dissolution are very similar to those involved in divorce.

One issue is that of property division. Property that was acquired during a domestic partnership is usually classified as community property, with some exceptions. Property that was acquired before the domestic partnership began is typically treated as separate property.

Registered domestic partners are also often surprised to learn that they could be eligible to receive spousal support, or be required to pay spousal support. Washington courts may order either member of a registered domestic partnership to pay spousal support for the benefit of the other partner, if one partner has a much higher salary than the other.

A Washington area family law attorney can assist with specific questions about the legal differences between a domestic partnership and a marriage, and dissolution of domestic partnership and divorce.

Source: Seattle Times, "Gay-marriage bill may be within reach in Senate," Rachel La Corte and Mike Baker, Jan. 11, 2012

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