The Legal Stand

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:14

    SUSSEX COUNTY-Local municipalities are prepared for the new Domestic Partnership Act, a legal pact for same-sex couples in New Jersey, despite only a trickling-in of applications during the first week of the new law. Municipal clerks throughout Sussex County on Monday began to accept applications of same-sex couples who want to be recognized as domestic partners under the new act, which gives some benefits similar to marriage. Clerks have been sent packages from the state and have been instructed on how to process the applications. "We're ready," said Irene O'Connor, deputy registrar for Newton, where domestic partnership licenses will be processed, along with marriage licenses. The law took effect on Saturday, July 10, but like most municipal clerks' offices, Newton's office was closed on Saturday and began processing applications on Monday, July 12. By the end of last week, local municipal clerks had received software and instructions from the state on how to process domestic partnership applications. The Domestic Partnership Act provides same-sex couples certain rights and benefits that are not as extensive as in marriage, but which include visitation rights normally reserved for family members and protection for a surviving partner from having to pay inheritance taxes on shared property. The new law will only apply to couples that can show they have a longstanding relationship that involves shared finances, living expenses or property ownership. "It's a good first step," said Attorney James Fine, whose private law practice in Nutley advises same-sex couples in estate planning and other legal advice. "The law really falls short of providing protection that marriage allows," Fine said. "But it's a very good step in the right direction." Currently, same-sex marriages are not legal in New Jersey. However, state law does not specifically ban them. Last March, a gay couple was granted a marriage license by officials in Asbury Park, who claimed state law does not explicitly ban such unions. While the courts tackle whether that marriage is valid, state lawmakers are considering a ban on gay marriage and a resolution urging Congress to ban all gay marriages nationwide. Gov. James McGreevey has said he supports the Domestic Partnership Act, but not same-sex marriage. Fine said the new law has some flaws, including some inadequate details on how a couple can dissolve such a partnership. Some of the issues will have to be decided as cases come up in court, such as alimony, child support and custody, Fine said. Ralph D'Aries, health officer in Sparta, said he believes there is another loophole in the new law: There is nothing that prevents a person from first entering into a domestic partnership with someone of the same sex, and then legally marrying someone of the opposite sex. "One individual could apply for a domestic partnership agreement and then apply for a marriage license," D'Aries said. "They're going to need to correct this quickly." The law does prohibits individuals from entering into a domestic partnership while already being married, or having been in another domestic partnership within the past six months. "I think there will be unforeseen problems, as in any new regulation," D'Aries said. D'Aries said he's not sure how many applications to expect. He said the office has had "one or two" calls during the year, asking for information about the new law. A large number of same-sex couples in New Jersey registered as domestic partners in Maplewood, a community in Essex County, where a "Domestic Partnership Celebration and Festival" was held on Saturday, July 10. Municipal clerks from Maplewood, East Orange, Livingston, New Brunswick and Orange were present to register couples from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Maplewood Town Hall. The law allows couples to register anywhere in New Jersey and does not limit registration to the municipality of residence. The festival, sponsored in part by Jersey Pride and other gay rights groups, included games and activities in a "family zone," and speeches from legislators and other officials who support the Domestic Partnership Act. While the law falls short of providing same-sex couples the same benefits of marriage, its most important aspect is its ability to save a surviving partner inheritance tax, Fine said. "Some of these people have been in relationships for 40 or 50 years," Fine said. He said if a longstanding couple owns a $500,000 house, the inheritance tax can be as much as $75,000 and the inability to pay it may force a surviving partner out of his or her own home. The Domestic Partnership Act also applies to older couples of different sexes, who are not married but who have longstanding relationships