Gay and straight couples should pay equal domestic-partnership fees

Same-sex couples who register a domestic partnership in California must pay an additional $23 toward resources for same-sex victims of domestic violence.

Mara Schmid and her partner have been together for about two years. With same-sex marriage still up in the air in California, the couple recently decided to take a look at registering their relationship as a domestic partnership.

Under state law, registered domestic partners have “the same rights, protections and benefits” as married couples.

After downloading the necessary form from the secretary of state’s website, they discovered that the filing fee is $10 but that same-sex partners have to pony up an extra $23, bringing their total to $33. By law, straight couples registering a domestic partnership face no such additional fee.

What’s up with that?

“Discrimination should never be written into the law,” Schmid, 23, of Hollywood told me. “It should never be a requirement that some people have to do something that others don’t have to do.”

She’s right, and somebody in Sacramento is probably going to have to fix this.

But the 2006 law that created this fee was basically a good one, providing resources for same-sex victims of domestic violence. And the $23 fee charged to same-sex domestic partners mirrors a charge for spousal-abuse programs that is included in California marriage-license fees.

The legislation, AB 2051, was introduced by former Democratic Assemblywoman Rebecca Cohn with the backing of leading gay-rights advocates, including the nonprofit organization Equality California.

“Straight couples have many places to go to access services,” said Jorge Amaro, a spokesman for Equality California. “There aren’t a lot of agencies that provide services to gay and lesbian couples.”

For the fiscal year that ended June 30, state records show that 4,592 couples registered as domestic partners. Of that number, 3,688, or about 80%, were same-sex couples.

Straight couples can register as domestic partners as long as one of the partners is at least 62 years old. The intent in such cases was to help avoid inheritance issues should a couple choose not to wed.

Cohn’s legislation arose from a series of hearings in 2005 by the California State Assembly Select Committee on Domestic Violence. The hearings were meant to raise awareness of domestic abuse among same-sex couples and create resources to help victims.

Funds raised by the domestic-partnership fees are administered by the California Emergency Management Agency. Kelly Huston, the agency’s assistant secretary, said about $98,000 was raised in the most recent fiscal year.

He said that of 102 domestic violence shelters statewide, three qualified to receive funding for programs to assist same-sex victims of abuse.

Huston, who himself is in a domestic partnership, agreed it was odd that $23 was being collected from same-sex applicants while straight couples paid no such fee.

Shannan Velayas, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office, said the law is explicit on this score.

She pointed out that Section 298 of the California Family Code says the $23 fee “shall not apply to persons of opposite sexes filing a domestic partnership registration.”

Although that was undoubtedly included in the bill to avoid sticking straight couples with a fee for same-sex resources, the result is a gaping loophole for funding of domestic-violence programs.

Straight couples who apply for a marriage license have to pay a total fee of about $90, which includes $23 for domestic-violence programs. Same-sex couples, when they get the chance again to wed in California, will have to pay the same.

Straight couples applying to be domestic partners face no such fees.

At best, this is unfair to married straight people because they’re funding domestic-violence programs that straight domestic partners also can use. At worst, this legally discriminates against same-sex domestic partners because they have to pay a fee that straight people do not.

“It’s surprising no one’s noticed this before,” said Mary Der-Parseghian, a Los Angeles lawyer specializing in family law. “You’d think that all domestic partners would have to pay the fee.”

That seems like the smart solution.

DMV’s funky fees

I’ve received a number of emails from people saying they just got their vehicle-registration bills from the California Department of Motor Vehicles and were given virtually no time to make a payment before getting slapped with a late fee.

“Either the DMV has become unbelievably incompetent about its mailings or it is deliberately trying to make it necessary for people to pay late fees,” Cypress resident Dan Garvey, 78, commented.

In fact, everyone’s favorite state agency is a victim of the budget wrangling in Sacramento. Armando Botello, a spokesman for the DMV, said officials have been watching from the sidelines as lawmakers bickered over whether to raise or lower vehicle licensing fees.

“We didn’t know how much we’d be charging people,” he said.

As the deadline hit to mail out July registration bills, Botello said, a decision was made to include an insert in the envelope telling people they had 30 days from the due date to make payments. He said this was the most cost-effective way of informing drivers that they had a little extra time.

But the DMV could have done a better job of getting the word out. For one thing, many people overlook inserts — we shouldn’t, but we do. For another, the insert was printed in light-green ink and wasn’t very prominent.

Most important, the insert was worded in bureaucratic language that didn’t make clear what was happening. It said only that people have to “pay fees within 30 days of the due date to avoid penalties. After the 30-day grace period, penalties will be due.”

Bottom line: You won’t face a penalty if you pay within a month of the due date. More info is available at the DMV’s website.

By David Lazarus, July 15, 2011

David Lazarus’ column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.
Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times

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