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Case arguing for equal protections for domestic partners who thought their relationships were registered with the state but were not as California family law provides to people who believed they were married but were not


Darrin Ellis and David Arriaga were in a committed relationship for five and a half years and decided to register as domestic partners in California. Ellis believed the couple had taken the necessary steps, only to find out when they separated that they were not validly registered. Different-sex couples who believe they were married but for some reason were not are protected under the “putative spouse doctrine” and can receive a fair division of the couple’s property. A trial court ruled that Ellis is not entitled to the same protection. Lambda Legal appealed this ruling and is arguing that the California Domestic Partner Rights and Responsibilities Act of 2003 (A B 205) should be construed to recognize putative domestic partners, and that denying domestic partners these important protections violates equal protection principles.


Committed couples who are married or registered often buy a number of important things together, including cars, homes and furniture. The putative spouse doctrine protects important interests in this property for people who believed in good faith that they were married. Domestic partners need the same protections for dividing their assets without having to spend resources on difficult court battles.

Lambda Legal’s Impact

California’s domestic partnership law requires equal treatment of registered domestic partners and spouses, and registering as a domestic partner can provide critical benefits for same-sex couples. Without access to marriage, however, same-sex couples are left with a separate, confusing system that can cause people like Ellis to fall through the cracks. Lambda Legal continues to fight for the rights of same-sex couples in the majority of states where marriage equality or other civil protections are not yet available.


  • July 2007: Lambda Legal submits opening brief to Court of Appeal arguing that AB 205 should be construed to protect putative domestic partners, and that denying this protection to lesbians and gay men deprives them of the equal protection of the law.
  • January 2008: California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown, Jr. files a brief asking the court to use its equitable power to protect putative domestic partners.
  • April 2008: Lambda Legal argues this case before the Fourth Appellate District Court of Appeal, Division Three.
  • May 2008: Victory! The Fourth Appellate District Court of Appeal, Division Three rules in favor of Ellis, holding that California’s domestic partner law was intended to provide domestic partners equal treatment under the law.