Banner: Relationship Recognition


NCLR’s work for full, fair, and equal legal recognition of our relationships gets to the heart of what we do. Whether it is a committed parent unable to seek joint custody of a child, a surviving partner unable to inherit or make funeral arrangements, or one partner prohibited from making a pivotal medical decision on the other’s behalf, LGBT partners continue to be denied basic rights and protections most Americans take for granted. NCLR is working across the country to defend and establish these basic protections for our families both by working for full marriage equality and by demanding dignity and fairness for domestic partners and other unmarried couples.

With each election, the legal status of our relationships shifts. NCLR is hard at work addressing the ever-evolving legal challenges our families and relationships face, creating innovative legal protections whenever and however possible. And through our Family Protection Project, we’re working to make sure that everyone has access to these protections, regardless of economic status.

We are in the midst of a dramatic transformation of the laws affecting our families, as a growing number of states are considering or enacting marriage equality and civil union or domestic partnership protections. For more information see our publication Marriage, Domestic Partnerships, and Civil Unions: An Overview of Relationship Recognition for Same-Sex Couples in the United States.

For all LGBT individuals and same-sex couples, it is important to create legal documents that protect your family. You can download information about the basic documents you need to protect your relationship here (pdf). NCLR strongly recommends that you seek the advice of an attorney to assist you in creating a comprehensive set of legal documents to protect your partner and assure that your intentions are honored. While it may seem expensive now to pay an attorney to help you draft legal documents, the cost is much less than the financial and emotional price of having to fight to protect your family because you didn’t have these protections in place. One day we will live in a country that gives our relationships full legal protection and recognition. Until that day arrives, however, we must protect ourselves from the reality of homophobia and a legal system that too often ignores who we are to each other.

program highlights

California's SB 54
On July 7, 2009, NCLR Staff Attorney Ilona Turner testified at a hearing in the California State Capitol in Sacramento in support of SB 54, the Marriage Recognition and Family Protection Act. The bill, which was introduced by Senator Mark Leno and sponsored by Equality California, would clarify that marriages of same-sex couples that were performed outside of the state prior to November 5, 2008, must be recognized as valid marriages in California. The bill would also clarify that same-sex couples who marry outside the state after November 5, 2008 are entitled to all of the rights and responsibilities that spouses receive, with the sole exception of the name “marriage.”
Also testifying at the hearing were Alex Ingersoll and Martin Tannenbaum, who married in Massachusetts in September 2008, just before the passage of Proposition 8. They spoke about how much their marriage meant to them and to their family, and how unfair and confusing it is to feel uncertain about whether their marriage is recognized in California today.
The measure passed the Assembly Judiciary Committee on July 7 by a vote of 7-3, and now heads to the full Assembly for a vote.
For more information on SB 54, visit Equality California’s website
click here to take action

AAA South Under Attack for Treating All Spouses Equally
Iconic auto club AAA South, the fourth largest AAA affiliate in the country, is committed to recognizing all spouses, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, in company policies and services. AAA South now allows married same-sex couples to receive spousal discounts under AAA’s Associate Membership program. Now AAA South is under attack by an anti-gay group, which is calling on its members to flood the company with phone calls and emails. NCLR is proud to stand with Equality Florida as they lead the effort to support AAA South and their policy of equality and inclusion.


Domestic Partnership Judicial Determination of Parentage Act of 2009
On July 18, 2009, the Domestic Partnership Judicial Determination of Parentage Act of 2009 went into effect in Washington, D.C. The law protects children born to same-sex parents in the District of Columbia. Drafted by law professor Nancy Polikoff along with NCLR and advocated for by Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington (GLAA), the law provides that when a woman bears a child conceived by artificial insemination, and her spouse or unmarried partner consents in writing to the insemination, the consenting spouse or partner is a legal parent. That person’s name will appear as a parent on the child’s birth certificate. Thus, District has become the first jurisdiction in the country to enact a statute specifically providing children born through artificial insemination with two legal parents from the beginning even when those parents are a same-sex or different-sex unmarried couple. In a separate provision, the new law also establishes that when a woman in a registered domestic partnership bears a child, her domestic partner is the presumed parent of the child and the partner’s name will appear on the child’s birth certificate. The Department of Vital Records is preparing a consent form that, when signed by both women, will result in placing the names of both parents on the child’s birth certificate. D.C. Councilmember Phil Mendelson was the principal sponsor of this measure.


"Domestic Partner Benefits: The National Perspective"
On February 21, 2009, Liz Seaton spoke on “Domestic Partner Benefits: The National Perspective,” at the Texas Equity Conference sponsored by the Domestic Partner Benefits Committee at the University of Texas at Austin. The day-long conference focused on practical organizing, legal and legislative efforts to secure domestic partner benefits and was attended by individuals from several state universities across Texas.

relationship recognition | history

Relationship recognition is a foundation of LGBT law. From marriage to domestic partnerships and beyond, the case law surrounding relationship recognition has been integral to NCLR’s more than thirty years of work. The importance of this work is brought to the forefront in times of crisis. Many legal victories stem from tragedy. In 1988, Karen Thompson finally won the guardianship of her life partner after her partner was severely disabled in an auto accident. More than ten years later, NCLR helped Sharon Smith win the right to sue for wrongful death of her partner Diane Alexis Whipple who was killed in a horrific dog-mauling. Relationship recognition is woven into all other areas of law in which NCLR is a national leader. It has been part of our history since the beginning, and will continue to be in the future.

family protection project

NCLR is a leading architect of advocacy for low-income LGBT families and their children, with a particular focus on LGBT families of color. Children with same-sex parents often do not have a legal relationship to at least one of their parents. As a result, they can be denied social security benefits or can end up in foster care if their legal parent dies. In almost every state, LGBT families can take affirmative steps to protect their parent-child relationships, but these steps require the aid of an attorney, and are thus financially out of reach for many families. Our Family Protection Project supports and expands free and low-cost family law services for low-income same-sex parent families, with a focus on serving families of color, to empower them to protect their parent-child relationships.

case study | Smith v. Knoller et al

When we first read of the story, it was too horrible to be real. On January 26, 2001, a woman in San Francisco was attacked, mauled, and killed by two dogs while attempting to unlock the door to her apartment. On February 7, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the woman whose life came to such a violent end was survived by her partner of seven years, Sharon Smith.

Diane Alexis Whipple was a world-class athlete, a celebrated and admired lacrosse coach, a loving daughter, a trusted friend, and a lesbian in a committed long-term relationship. The National Center for Lesbian Rights, Michael Cardoza and Robert Lazo, and the law firm of Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe LLP represented Smith and assured her voice was heard and that her place in Whipple’s life was respected and acknowledged. When Smith found she was not entitled to proceed in a wrongful death lawsuit because she and Whipple weren’t legally married, she enlisted NCLR’s help.

This case illustrated, with heart-breaking poignancy, the reality of our lives. Regardless of the commitment, irrespective of the love, blind to the length of time together—to the law we are strangers.

NCLR insisted that Smith’s claims were fully presented and that her pain and loss was legally acknowledged. We challenged the system and we won. On August 9, 2001, San Francisco Superior Court Judge A. James Robertson II ruled that same-sex partners must be treated the same as surviving legal spouses for purposes of bringing a wrongful death suit. That ruling was the first of its kind.

The dog owners, Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel, also faced criminal charges and were convicted of involuntary manslaughter. In November 2002, Smith reached a confidential settlement with the building owners. Her lawsuit against the dog owners is still pending.

relationship recognition | how we can help

Please contact NCLR today if:

  • You need information about the protections available in your city and state
  • You need information about legally protecting your relationship
  • An institution (hospital, employer, school, etc.) is not recognizing your relationship


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