Sunday, January 21, 2007

One plus one equals

A majority of New Zealanders—61%—are living in a relationship. Thirteen percent are in de facto (unofficial relationships, neither marriage nor civil union), which is double the number in de facto relationships in 1991, according to an article in today’s Sunday Star-Times. 47% are married, down 5%. No figures for people in civil unions were provided.

In 2002, the Labour-led Government changed New Zealand property law so that couples—both same-sex and opposite-sex—who have been living together three years or more almost always have to split their property equally if the relationship ends. This is similar to the way property division is usually decided in dissolving marriage and civil unions (civil unions became law later). However, marriage and civil unions provide next-of-kin status so, among other things, if one partner dies, the other inherits the partner’s property.

It’s possible to “contract out” of the Act before that three-year period is up. This is similar in some ways to pre-nuptial agreements and tend to be more popular with wealthy people or business owners who don’t want to risk having to divide up their pre-relationship property with their partner if their de facto relationship ends.

Marriage in New Zealand isn’t any more permanent than in other developed countries, with about a third ending in divorce. Civil unions are too new for any meaningful figures about the longevity of those relationships.

The larger point here is that in New Zealand, people in relationships are protected by law, whether or not it’s officially registered (marriage or civil union). And, unlike most of the United States, same-sex couples have fundamental protections on the same basis as opposite-sex couples. That includes the option for civil unions, which offer official recognition and registration for relationships. Civil unions are legally equivalent to marriage.

For New Zealand couples, there is equal justice under law. I still hope that one day the US will offer the same.

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