I was informed recently that my son Nick will receive free tuition from my partner’s university, as long as Ted and I declare a domestic partnership. I was pleased to discover that Nick may attend Columbia College Chicago (CCC) with tuition waived, but embarrassed that I did not actually know the details for how to declare a partnership. Ted and I have been together for more than a decade, but we have never signed any legal affidavits together beyond a bank mortgage.
My own Catholic university recognizes LDAs (legally domiciled adults) for most benefits but asks that dependents who receive free tuition be financially dependent on the employee or legally adopted. CCC just asks for a form signed by a notary. The CCC Admissions staff person eventually directed me (since I could not find it) to the online affidavit form that Ted and I will need to complete. She informed me that we must file this form during November of this year in order for my son to attend next fall.
Ted and I have always murmured that we would get married — if we needed to — in order to gain access to the free tuition benefits for faculty and their partners. But we both feel strongly about legal rights for gay and lesbian couples, and wanted our relationship to reflect that. I am always a little amused when I mention my “partner” to new acquaintances, and watch as they try to carefully work out whether I meant a female or a male partner. My children certainly recognize the commitment that Ted and I have to each other, as does my ex-husband. We are all able to share meals and have "family" discussions together. As my own father said to me when Ted and I decided to buy a house, “You know that owning a home together is legally more complicated than being married…”
The politics around benefits at universities have increased recently because the costs of health coverage have also escalated. This summer an Aetna-funded CUPA-HR study found that--since 2005 -- the number of universities covering domestic partner health benefits has increased from 37% to 56%, but health care premiums also rose by 7.3%. Most highly-ranked universities understand that they need to offer domestic partner benefits in order to attract and retain top faculty and staff. Unfortunately, media-driven politics supported by broken state balance sheets interferes with this social progress. During this same time period, the Michigan Supreme Court upheld a ban on recognizing same-sex marriages that applies to public institutions, effectively “eviscerating domestic-partner protections and rendering domestic-partner health benefits illegal in Michigan.” Many Michigan universities responded by "switching" the legal categories for benefits to include "other eligible individuals."
As the economy tightens, faculty will have to continue to fight for domestic partner benefits at many universities, particularly public institutions in conservative states, but faculty need to also be vigilant in "blue" states. Catholic Charities recently filed suit against the state of Illinois over foster care contracts, arguing that they should not have to recognize applications from unmarried parents, including those in civil unions, in order to receive state funds to operate. Fortunately, Catholic Charities continues to lose on this battle between church and state. At least the state of Illinois is able to clarify this important American legal distinction.
In the meantime, maybe I’ll start planning a November paper-signing party….