AUGUSTA (AP) – Dozens of gay and lesbian couples filled out domestic partnership forms in the State House on Friday as a state law creating a registry for those relationships took effect.

“This is phenomenal. I wasn’t expecting this kind of turnout,” said Ralph Cusack of Portland, who registered with his partner, Butch Fenton, adding that the registration will add security to their 24-year relationship.

Besides creating a domestic partnership registry, the new law says that if a domestic partner dies without a will, trust or other estate planning, the surviving partner inherits the other’s property.

It says a domestic partner is considered next of kin, just as a spouse is, when determining who has the right to make funeral or burial arrangements. Also, a domestic partner is considered a guardian when the other partner is incapacitated. The law covers gay as well as heterosexual couples.

Some partners already have wills spelling out their wishes, so signing up in the new registry amounted to making a statement.

“The state is acknowledging we have some kind of relationship, so by God, we’re going to do it,” said Harold Booth of Hallowell, who registered with his partner, Daniel Kelley.

Gay and lesbian couples lined up to have printed forms notarized at tables in the Hall of Flags, which was decorated with flowers and where a guitarist serenaded the couples. Some couples posed for snapshots and a few tears were shed.

Later, they marched in a group across the street to the Health and Human Services Department to file their forms.

The new law will help couples who have lived together for years or even decades and incorrectly assume they are protected by common law marriages, said Lynne Williams, an attorney who notarized registry forms Friday.

“There is no common law marriage in Maine,” said Williams.

The event came as other states, notably Massachusetts, struggle with the gay marriage issue and a little over two weeks after the U.S. Senate scuttled a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

Maine is among the states that have a Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between a man and woman and bars the recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states.

Maine’s new “Declaration of Domestic Partnership” forms state that registration does not create a marriage between the partners. Partners must live together for at least 12 months in order to register.

It also says that the form “is not a substitute for a will, a deed or a partnership agreement.” The state charges $35 fees for the registrations.

During a news conference marking Friday’s occasion in Maine, Betsy Smith of Equality Maine said the state “has taken a great step forward for equality” by recognizing gay and lesbian families.

“This is a beautiful, beautiful day,” said state Rep. Benjamin Dudley, D-Portland, who sponsored the domestic registry law. “Today marks a triumph of decency over discrimination.”

Gov. John Baldacci, who signed the legislation in April, attended Friday’s news conference.

AP-ES-07-30-04 1330EDT

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