With a refreshing display of bipartisanship over a potentially touchy subject, the Ulster County Legislature voted as one on August 15 to enshrine the rights of domestic partners into a local law.
Sponsored by legislator Peter Criswell, a two-term Kingston Democrat, and Gina Hansut, a first-term Republican representing part of Lloyd and Marlborough, the registry will protect the autonomy of people who for their own reasons decide against a traditional marriage. The law enhances the rights of those who leave themselves vulnerable to a host of unintended consequences when confronted with medical, end-of-life, paternal and property decisions.
County clerks issue certificate of domestic partnerships throughout New York State. It was longtime Ulster County clerk Nina Postupack who identified the need and brought her concern to the two legislators.
“What initiated me reaching out to the legislature and county executive Jen Metzger to actually establish a registry in the county,” said Postupack, “was that we received numerous inquiries from many people that moved here from counties downstate where they had those benefits prior to moving and assumed that those benefits would continue once they moved here, and that wasn’t the case.”
Intended as a sort of buffer between domestic partners and disapproving or meddlesome relatives legally empowered to hijack the decision-making process during moments of stressful emergencies and tragedy or as a guarantee that one partner would be able to make decisions for the other in the absence of blood rights, the law will now allow numerous Ulster County residents to rest easy.
“You know, there are family members who will basically cut out somebody’s partner,” said Criswell, “and the person who’s been the caregiver for that partner then is sitting on the outside, and they can’t go and visit. That’s the tragic story. This law rectifies that.”
Among other rights Criswell and Hansut’s law specifically ensures hospital visitation, paid family leave, and eligibility for health insurance where offered.
The question arises why this sort of common-law arrangement was necessary at all.
“You know, I think it’s interesting choice, because marriage actually carries more rights to it,” said Criswell. “But some people don’t believe in the structure of marriage. It’s a personal thing, I think, with a couple deciding what they want to do.”
Postupack agreed. “People shouldn’t be forced into a box,” she said, “because that’s the only way they can get benefits or protection.”
Criswell disputed the perception that the law caters specifically to the LGBTQ+ community. “Not at all,” he said. “But before same-sex marriage became legal, it was a huge deal. This was one of the vehicles for same-sex couples to be able to have common rights, especially for things like hospital visitations. I think that was a kind of a game-changer overall, in terms of the domestic partnership registry.”
Marriages and domestic partnerships are controlled at the state level, said Criswell. What this local law does is give people a local option to receive their license from Ulster County.
The motivations of non-traditional unions have been met historically with some skepticism by conservatives, both secular and religious, and so a due diligence was performed to assure bipartisan agreement.
“People have said, ‘Well, maybe it’ll be too easy for people,’ said legislator Hansut. “But there’s actually, a lot of paperwork. It’s not as easy as it might sound. And so there’s a protocol. You have to definitely have proof that you are actually in this space in this relationship. It’s often been said that sometimes it’s easier to actually get married than to prove a domestic partnership.”
Hansut and Criswell gathered questions from their party caucuses and brought them to the county attorney to answer — and to study the implications of the proposed law.
“New York State recognizes domestic partnership as a valid form of relationship,” said Criswell.
“By Ulster County creating a domestic partnership registry, we’re not violating any state law. There’s a robust series of questions that solidify the fact that these people are in a committed relationship with each other.”
Hansut, who considers herself “a true Republican and a true conservative,” sees no philosophical conflict in coming out in support of a legal framework to protect non-traditional marriages. Nor does she think this should be a party issue. She considers her experiences during Covid to be her impetus for supporting this law. “I never thought that I would see what happened with Covid in my lifetime, and I definitely saw people during Covid that weren’t able to see their loved ones. It makes you look at things differently. That was very eye-opening for me.”
The co-sponsors sing the song of bipartisanship, and credit it as the ideal form of legislating.
“I really believe that we just all have to work together on issues,” explained Hansut. “ Especially an issue like this. There were questions, and we got those questions answered. Everybody from both sides. We were content with the answers, and we moved forward with it. This is just an issue that we were a little bit behind on. And I’m happy that we finally have the registry.”
Research has suggested that couples who live together often have personal relationships and bonds as strong as those of married couples, and nurture and care for one another in sickness and in health. Among the conditions that must be met to qualify for what is essentially a common-law marriage is that neither of the persons is married to a third party, and that the two have been living together for at least one year.
A domestic partnership is terminated whenever one of the parties to the partnership marries a third party, there is as of yet no provision for throuples.