Domestic partners registering with the state will now be given the same rights as married spouses in probate matters, allowing one partner to inherit the other’s assets when they die while avoiding costly inheritance taxes, including in instances where no will exists, according to new legislation.

Seven percent of adults nationwide live as unmarried partners, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, a statistic that has nearly tripled in recent decades.

The bill passed unanimously by the 2023 General Assembly gives new legal standing to unmarried couples 18 and older in committed relationships.

The legislation also recognizes the children born to registered domestic partners as the legal offspring of both parents and allows domestic partners to serve as a personal representatives for their partners’ estates.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Current Maryland law says unmarried domestic partners are not entitled to each others’ assets when they die unless they have a will, making partners who may have shared decades together no different in the eyes of the law than two strangers. Even in cases where partners have wills, the assets are still subject to a 10% inheritance tax.

But Howard County Register of Wills Byron Macfarlane said the new law will have a “big impact on people’s lives,” by extending the rights of married spouses to domestic partners. The measure will especially help those who can’t afford estate planning, he said.

“It is the people who have the smallest estates who are more likely to not have a will,” said Macfarlane, who was part of a work group with other county registers of wills and attorneys specializing in estate issues that studied how best to update Maryland’s law. “People typically don’t die with a $10 million estate and no will.”

According to a 2021 Gallup poll, of the 46% of U.S. adults who have a will, the majority are older, white and wealthier than people who don’t have one.

Estate and trust attorney Alexis Burrell-Rohde, who serves as register of wills for Baltimore County, said this year’s move brings Maryland’s probate laws “into the modern age” and will give rights and financial relief for the surviving domestic partner.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“It recognizes the ability for Maryland families to arrange themselves in any way they wish without having the stigma of unexpected taxes assessed,” said Burell-Rohde, who also served on the work group.

“We’re not supposed to force people into marriage when that’s not what they want to do just to achieve their estate planning goals,” she said.

Burrell-Rohde and Macfarlane have witnessed the unfavorable outcomes of families whose loved ones did not predesignate their assets. Property can be tied up in probate, can lead to housing insecurity, and taxes due can force loved ones to sell the inherited property to pay the bill.

“Taxing domestic partners is really a tax or a penalty for not getting married,” Burrell-Rohde said.

Moore has until May 30 to sign the bill or allow it to become law by not vetoing it. The governor’s office did not respond to questions about whether he will sign the bill.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Once law, the provisions would go into effect on Oct. 1. Macfarlane said the forms are already being prepared. All registers of wills will have access to a statewide database of registered domestic partners. Should couples move within Maryland, they will not have to re-register in their new county.

Meanwhile, here’s more information about how to register a domestic partnership.

How do I register my domestic partnership?

Couples interested in registering their partnership with the state must file a declaration with the register of wills in their county of residence. The county may charge up to $25 to offset the expected decrease in collected taxes.

The paperwork must be notarized, and both partners need to “affirm under penalty of perjury” they are not married or otherwise committed to another person, according to the bill.

Registered domestic partners must be at least 18 years old and not related, and must be at least four generations removed from one another.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

We already have wills. Should we still register our domestic partnership?

While there’s no requirement to register, avoiding the 10% inheritance tax may prove enough of an incentive to document the partnership.

Burrell-Rohde said the declaration itself doesn’t override a tidy estate plan, but warned the taxes after the death of a loved one can be costly — imagine losing 10% of a joint checking account, for example.

Does the new law extend additional rights that married couples have to me and my domestic partner? Will it change how we should file our taxes?

No. This legislation only applies to probate law. Registering a domestic partnership does not change how couples should file their state or federal taxes, Burrell-Rohde said.

What happens if the relationship ends?

To sever a registered domestic partnership, both partners need to file paperwork with the register of wills in their county. If only one partner wishes to end the partnership, they can file for termination with the register of wills. If the termination is not contested for six months, then the registered domestic partnership will dissolve.