This seems like such an easy question, but it isn’t. Why? Because it depends on for what issue one asks this question. And there are numerous issues for which one could ask this question. The most frequent areas for our clients in which this question arises are community property law, Veterans Benefits, Medi-Cal, and Income Tax.
California State Law Purposes
Obviously, if a couple is married, they are a couple for virtually all purposes. In California, we also have domestic partnerships. By statute, domestic partnerships can be entered into only by same sex couples or opposite sex couples in which at least one partner is at least 62 years old. If the domestic partnership is registered with the California Secretary of State (as opposed to through a city registration), then the couple is treated the same as a married couple for virtually all California law purposes. These purposes would include community property and California income tax, as well as others. [Back to Top of Article]
Federal law does not recognize the California domestic partnership, registered or not. However, the issue as to when a couple is a couple often arises in this field. To qualify for some Veterans Benefits, the combined income and expenses as well as the net worth of both members of the couple are taken into consideration.
Often, we are presented with the situation of a husband and wife who are not living together. One spouse is in need of the VA Aid & Attendance non service connected pension. This is one of those benefits that treats the two married individuals as one budget unit. The in need spouse does not know anything of the financial circumstances of the other spouse. The in need spouse wants to file based solely on his or her own financial situation. Can this be done? The VA regulations are very clear that the couple is treated as one budget unit unless they are estranged from each other.
Estranged, according to the dictionary, means alienated from one another. Although that definition is perhaps not as clear as we all might like, some cases are obvious. In one case the husband was still at least partially supporting the wife. That definitely was not estranged. In another, they hadn’t seen or spoken to each other in years and neither was supporting the other. That definitely was estranged. [Back to Top of Article]
Medi-Cal is a joint federal-state program. Registered domestic partnerships are not recognized under federal law but are under California law. According to the California Department of Health Care Services there is no federal reimbursement to the state for any Medi-Cal expenditures based on this type of relationship. Therefore, this relationship only affects state only Medi-Cal programs. The Medi-Cal long term care program is not a state only program.
Medi-Cal typically looks at the members of a couple as one budget unit for purposes of net worth, share of cost (a Medi-Cal term having to do with the income of the applicant). If the members of the couple are living separately, typically they are not treated as a couple (i.e they are not treated as one budget unit). [Back to Top of Article]
A relationship as a married (or equivalent) couple can have profound effects on one’s income taxes for purposes of tax bracket and deductions. Often these effects are negative and, hence, the term “marriage penalty.” Since Federal Law does not recognize registered domestic partnerships, federal income tax law does not either. As stated above, California income tax law does recognize this relationship.