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In N.J., domestic partnership law nears

Advocates pleased with added rights

SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. -- Knowing they had few rights as a couple, Marty Finkle and Mike Plake hired a lawyer to draft four documents, including a will and a health care proxy, that are supposed to protect the other if one gets sick or dies.

Starting July 1, Finkle and Plake will need just one piece of paper to legally prove their relationship. That's when New Jersey's domestic partnership law takes effect, giving gay couples the right to make medical decisions for each other and to file joint state tax returns.

But it's still not even close to the rights married couples get.

"I am thrilled that we have taken this step, but it's almost like having to go to separate water fountains," said Plake, 41, from the cozy, two-story home the couple share. "I'll never be satisfied with just this."

While many of the state's gay couples support the state's domestic partnership law, the debate over same-sex marriage looms as legal challenges continue in courtrooms across the country.

In March, same-sex couples flocked to Asbury Park after two men became the first gay couple to be married by city officials. The state attorney general quickly deemed that union invalid.

For now, homosexual couples are focusing on the state's domestic partnership law, which they say will at least provide guidelines for how gay partners can live as a family unit.

Civil rights groups have praised New Jersey's leaders as fair-minded in passing the law.

New Jersey's law makes it the fourth state to provide legal rights to gay relationships. Vermont legalized civil unions in 1999, and California and Hawaii recognize domestic partnerships. Other states have given limited rights to gay unions, such as partner benefits for state employees.

"It puts New Jersey as one of the leading states that recognize same-sex couples should be treated with the same equity compared to married couples," said Seth Kilbourn, national field director of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights organization.

For Veronica Hoff, a 49-year-old state worker, it means if she is rushed to the hospital with brain swelling as she was seven years ago, her partner, Forest Kairos, won't be left in the dark.

At the time, doctors wouldn't even speak to Kairos, 32, or let her see Hoff. The new law will allow gay couples to visit each other in a hospital when family or spouses would typically be allowed in.

"People are struggling and trying their best to deal with day-to-day issues that marriage laws were created in order to resolve," Hoff said. "You have a whole class of people that were left without any sort of real framework."

To obtain domestic partnership benefits, same-sex couples would have to show they live together and provide proof of joint financial or property ownership. They could also name a partner as a beneficiary in a will or retirement plan.

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