Like many gay couples, Brian Cornell and Alberto Rulloda long ago established a legal framework for their relationship to match their commitment to each other.

They drew up wills naming the other as beneficiary, property agreements and powers of attorney, among other documents. The couple of 27 years wanted to spell out the specifics that would have been presumed if they were married.

Come Saturday, such improvised arrangements will be less necessary for them and nearly 29,000 other California couples — the majority same-sex partners (search). A law taking effect with the new year gives gay couples who register as domestic partners nearly the same responsibilities and benefits as married spouses. Heterosexual elderly couples also are eligible.

Same-sex couples in California for the first time will have access to divorce court for dividing their assets, seeking alimony and securing child support. They also will have automatic parental status over children born during the relationship and responsibility for each other's debts.

It guarantees domestic partners a say over what happens to their loved one's remains at death and means they cannot be forced to testify against each other in state courts.

"It won't be as good as marriage because we are talking about a thousand-plus federal benefits that won't be covered," Cornell said. "But a start's a start, progress is progress."

Many gay rights advocates say the domestic partner law heralds a hopeful new era of legal recognition and participation for gay men and lesbians. They hope that is particularly true for those raising children or without the money to pay lawyers to prepare the previously recommended paperwork.

One indication of the growing acceptance comes from the California Department of Health Services (search), which is updating its birth certificates to replace the lines for "mother" and "father" with the gender-neutral "parent" and "parent." Until now, hospitals have hand-altered the forms, and couples have needed a court order for the changes to be approved.

Two groups opposed to marriage rights for gay couples have challenged the law, claiming it violates the intent of a 2000 ballot initiative approved by voters that holds only unions between a man and a woman as valid in the state.

The California Court of Appeal has agreed to hear the case early in the year.

"Whether you call it 'domestic partnerships' or 'civil unions,' homosexual 'marriage' by another name is still homosexual 'marriage,' and the people of California voted against that," said Randy Thomasson, executive director of Campaign for California Families (search), one of the groups that brought the lawsuit.

Linton Johnson, 31, and Jeff Winkler, 30, already share a bank account, ownership interests in two houses and a romance that goes back six years. The extra responsibilities of domestic partnership, such as obligation for each other's debts, are not a burden for the Oakland residents.

"It helps legitimize our relationship to others," Johnson said. "And in that regard, if you get treated differently, you sort of feel like family with the rest of the world, and that can bring you closer together."