A domestic partner agreement is essentially a contract to establish the rights and responsibilities of each person in the relationship, and develop a legally binding way to share costs, financial accounts, incomes, or other personal property. In an era where much debate has been placed on the rights of those seeking a same-sex marriage, the term "domestic partner agreement" has sometimes become exclusive to same-sex couples. The fact is that a domestic partner agreement can be drawn up between any two unmarried adults, whether they be of the same or opposite gender. If created effectively, a domestic partner agreement can supply all the benefits of marriage, except those bestowed only by a national government, such as tax benefits, pensions, and other estate or probate issues.
This type of agreement can also provide an avenue for rights typically reserved for married couples, such as living wills or declarations of desire. Such an agreement carries the same legal weight as a lease agreement. Vviolations of a domestic partner agreement may be brought before a court as breaches of contract. In the United States, the issue was first brought to an international stage in 1976, when the California Supreme Court heard the case of Marvin v. Marvin, and ruled that written and even spoken contracts between unmarried partners are as legally valid as marriage contracts.
In its most basic form, a domestic partner agreement can provide a legally binding framework for unmarried couples or even roommates. Terms of such an agreement could include the percentage of household costs paid by each partner, whether the partners could jointly hold and thus be jointly responsible for financial accounts, and by what means all property gained during the partnership would be split upon its termination. Domestic partner agreements are often sought by couples engaged in long-term relationships, where divorce laws would not offer protection against one partner exploiting the other financially.
Domestic partnership laws have varied from state to state in the US, and usually center around the issues of health insurance and hospital visitations. As of 2011, ten states offered some limited form of rights under a domestic partner agreement, while another five offered same-sex marriages. In addition, a number of countries offered nationally-recognized domestic partnerships. As in the United States, the rights granted by a domestic partner agreement vary in their scope from country to country. The failure of any national government to recognize domestic partnerships, however, does not automatically invalidate the legal standing of a domestic partner agreement.