Recognizing a Fact of Modern Life

Tens of thousands of Californians, predominantly senior citizens, live together but don't marry. These are not casual relationships, quickly forged and just as quickly abandoned; rather, they are marriages in all but name. The story is a familiar one: A husband or wife died some years ago and the surviving spouse finds companionship and solace, even love, with a widow or widower. Yet legal marriage could jeopardize the Social Security benefits to which each is entitled separately. Familiar, too, are stories of gay couples who are not legally permitted to marry but forge relationships as stable and as close as that of any heterosexual couple.

However, as important as these relationships are to the individuals involved, they are meaningless to the State of California. So when, for example, one partner becomes gravely ill, a hospital is under no legal obligation to extend visitation rights to the other, and most don't. Unmarried partners, no matter how long their relationship, do not have the same priority in the law as do spouses to act as conservators for one another in the event one is incapacitated and cannot make his or her own decisions as to medical treatment or finances. Nor can a domestic partner, upon death, easily leave a residence to the surviving partner.

AB 2810, sponsored by Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), thoughtfully addresses these very real concerns by proposing much-needed changes in state probate, health and safety and family law.

Katz's bill would create a Domestic Partners Registry, extending certain rights in times of crisis to unmarried individuals who share a common residence and agree to be jointly responsible for each other's basic living expenses. The rights include visitation, conservatorship capability and ease in willing property to one another. The registry idea is not new, but Katz's bill would make California the first to extend the concept statewide. AB 2810 is scheduled for a vote on the Assembly floor this week.

The procedures for the creation and dissolution of partnerships would ensure that such relationships were struck only after much thought. Moreover, the bill is fiscally prudent; the total cost of maintaining the registry would be covered by the fees charged to applicants.

Opposition comes from groups such as the Traditional Values Coalition that fear the bill condones homosexuality and devalues traditional families. But, as Katz notes, 93% of unmarried couples in California are heterosexual couples. That's why the American Assn. of Retired Persons, along with other major seniors groups and labor organizations, strongly supports it. At its core, this bill condones the most traditional of values--compassion, mutual support and responsibility.

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