I am curious about financial liability with domestic partnership…i.e., if one of us should fall ill and, in the process, incur monumental medical bills above and beyond what Medicare or Supplemental insurance will pay, is the other partner liable for the bill should the ill partner die?
The answer to this question depends on the type of domestic partnership registration and the law that applies to the claim or debt.
There is generally no joint liability for these types of debts in a local or employer-based domestic partnership. However, under some city registrations, such as San Francisco, domestic partners are jointly liable for their "basic living expenses" – defined as the cost of basic food and shelter and "expenses which are paid at least in part by a program or benefit for which the partner qualified because of the domestic partnership." This could arguably include medical expenses if they were paid in part by a health insurance program, which the sick partner qualified for as a result of the domestic partnership. A creditor, such as a hospital or insurance company could make a claim as a third-party beneficiary against the surviving partner based upon the city registration. However, it's my understanding that this is rarely done.
If the partners are in a marriage-equivalent state registration (such as a California domestic partnership or a New Jersey civil union), then they are subject to most of the same state laws as married couples, including those laws affecting property rights and responsibilities for debts to third parties. Debts governed by state law will extend to the surviving domestic partner, just like they would with a married spouse.
If the claim is based on federal law, such as a Medicaid reimbursement, the domestic partnership won't likely create joint liability since the federal government doesn't recognize couples in civil unions or domestic partnerships as "married." But, that rule could change in the future.
If you haven't yet taken the plunge with your partner, and you're really concerned about his or her debts and the potential for joint liability as a result of your union, it's probably best not to get married or register anywhere.