Who would you like to have with you when you are ill or injured in the hospital?  Most likely you would hope to have your partner of many years there with you to hold your hand when things get rough.  Although many of us take for granted that we would be allowed that luxury, until just recently unmarried couples had no assurance that their partner would be allowed to visit them in the hospital—especially if a “recognized” family member such as a parent or sibling chose to refuse access.

In February 2009, Phoenix passed an important milestone when the City Council adopted an ordinance that gives domestic partners, same sex or not, the right to register as domestic partners and establish the right to hospital visitation until the registration is officially revoked.

Before this ordinance, and in other parts of the state, even if the domestic partners had executed health care powers of attorney and HIPAA releases, the family could still exclude the partner from visitation.  Now however, if the domestic partners reside in Phoenix and have registered, they will have established a paramount right to visitation.  Area hospitals outside Phoenix are not bound by the registration and as of now the only other Arizona city with a domestic partners registry is Tucson.  Mesa’s city council is trying to adopt a similar provision, but opposition forces are organizing against the effort.

The registration conveys no other rights, but might be useful in establishing the credentials necessary to obtain benefits where such benefits are offered.

It appears more opposite sex couples than same sex couples are taking advantage of Phoenix’ ordinance, but the ordinance is hailed as a progressive step toward the recognition of human rights across sexual preference boundaries.

Estate planning for unmarried couples is crucial if property rights are to be inherited and disruption to the survivor’s lifestyle is to be avoided.  Traditional tools such as rights of survivorship, POD/TOD, beneficiary deeds, Wills, trusts, and powers of attorney can all effectively be used to provide an estate plan, but the impact on the decedent’s family and the survivor must be carefully considered.  Even small estates must be carefully planned if disputes are to be avoided.