Massachusetts law about unmarried couples and domestic partnerships

A compilation of laws, cases, and web sources on domestic partnerships and other legal issues affecting unmarried couples.

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Table of Contents

Massachusetts laws

MGL c.43B, § 13 Exercise of powers and functions by municipalities
Massachusetts domestic partnership ordinances are grounded in “home rule statutes” which grant local governments the power to initiate legislation not specifically authorized by the state legislature, but these statutes also include some limitations to that power.

City and town bylaws

Check with your City or Town Clerk to see if your municipal code includes an ordinance about domestic partnerships. People in committed relationships who meet the criteria established by the City or Town are provided an opportunity by the bylaws of some municipalities to register at the office of the Clerk, obtain a certificate attesting to their status, and share in certain rights and benefits conferred under the bylaws. Specific bylaws are listed below.

Arlington, Town Bylaws,  Title I, Article 23 “Domestic partnerships”

Boston, Municipal Code, Chapter 12-9A “Protection of families”

Brewster, Municipal Code, Chapter 87 “Domestic partnerships”

Cambridge, Municipal Code, Chapter 2.119 “Domestic partnerships”

Nantucket, Bylaws, Chapter 34 “Domestic partnerships”

Provincetown, General Bylaws, Chapter 7 “Domestic partnerships”
“Domestic Partnership, is hereby deleted, provided, however, that the rights and benefits of domestic partnerships that existed under Chapter 7 of the General Bylaws that was in effect prior to November 8, 2010, shall continue for any individuals who filed a Domestic Partnership Registration as of the effective date of this bylaw.”

Somerville, Code of Ordinances, Chapter 2, Article IX “Domestic partnerships”

Selected case law

Charron v. Amaral, 451 Mass. 767 (2008)
Unmarried cohabitants are not entitled to recover claims for loss of consortium.

Collins v. Guggenheim, 417 Mass. 615 (1994)
The SJC refused to extent rights to obtain property division under M.G.L. c. 208 section 34 to unmarried co-habitants.

Connors v. City of Boston, 430 Mass. 31 (1999)
A municipality cannot extend health insurance benefits to “domestic partners” of municipal employees.

Sullivan v. Rooney, 404 Mass. 160 (1989)
This case provides a good discussion of theories of property division between non-married cohabitants. 

Wilcox v. Trautz, 427 Mass. 326 (1998)
Unmarried cohabitants may, subject to the rules of contract law, lawfully contract concerning property, financial, and other matters relevant to their relationship, and such an agreement is valid with some limitations.

Worcester Housing Authority v. Mass. Commission Against Discrimination, 406 Mass. 244 (1989)
"It is unlawful to refuse to rent to or lease to or withhold public housing benefits from persons because they are unmarried."

Forms

Domestic partnership registration form, City of Somerville.
Sample form used by Somerville. Instructions available at “Registering a domestic partnership in Somerville.”

Statement of domestic partnership, City of Boston.
Form used by City of Boston with instructions at “How to file for a domestic partnership.”

A Domestic Partnership Ordinance “does not affect state law in many important areas of property rights, custody and inheritance.”

-- “Apply for a domestic partnership”, Cambridge City Clerk.

Web sources

“Common law marriage is not legal in Massachusetts – except when it is”, Kimberley Keyes, Lynch & Owens P.C. Blog, 5/17/17.

“Insurance coverage for unmarried partners living together”, Melissa Heinig, Nolo.com.

“Living together and property agreements”, Nolo.com.
Learn what “living together” contracts (or cohabitation agreements) are, who needs one, and what to include.

“Three’s company, too: The emergence of polyamorous partnership ordinances”, 13 Harvard Law Review 1441, March 10, 2022.
This article discusses the legal status of multiple-partner domestic partnership ordinances such as those in Somerville, Cambridge and Arlington. Massachusetts domestic partnership ordinances are grounded in “home rule statutes” which grant local governments the power to initiate legislation not specifically authorized by the state legislature.

Print sources

Counseling unmarried couples, ABA, 2nd edition, 2014. 
Includes a CD ROM with sample forms.
Discusses tax consequences, real estate ownership, debts & liabilities, insurance, public and private benefits, estate planning, non-marital dissolutions and cohabitation financial agreements and provides sample forms. 

Family law and practice with forms, 4th ed. (Mass. Practice  v. 1-3), Thomson Reuters, 2013 with supplements. Chapters 24 and 25.

A legal guide for lesbian and gay couples by Frederick Hertz, Nolo, 2020.
Includes information about domestic partnerships and sample living together contracts for lesbian and gay couples.

LexisNexis practice guide: Massachusetts family law, LexisNexis, annual, § 12:13 cohabitation agreements. 

Living together : a legal guide for unmarried couples by Frederick Hertz, Nolo, 2020.

Massachusetts domestic relations, 5th ed., Lexis, with supplement. § 15-48, Rights of Unmarried Parties (Cohabitation).

Principles of the law of family dissolution, The American Law Institute, 2002 with supplements. Chapter 6: Domestic partners. 
While not Massachusetts specific, this chapter discusses the fair distribution of economic gain and losses that come with the termination of a domestic partnership.  What defines domestic partnership property and how is it allocated once the partnership is over. Provides illustrations and examples. 

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Last updated: October 14, 2022
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