CustomsU.S. Customs and Border Protection sent a rule to the Federal Register to broaden the definition of “members of a family residing in one household.” The expansion includes long-term same-sex couples and other domestic relationships which would allow more returning U.S. citizens, residents and international visitors who may file a joint customs declaration for items acquired abroad.

The rule will apply to U.S. citizens, residents and international visitors traveling together as a family and takes effect 30 days from its filing on Dec. 13.

The new definition of family will make it easier for parents traveling with children when only one of those parents has legal custody.

While other agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service ruled same-sex couples who were legally married in a marriage equality state may file joint taxes no matter where they live, Customs is calling a family any couple in a committed relationship “including, but not limited to, long-term companions and couples in civil unions or domestic partnerships where the partners share financial assets and obligations, and are not married to, or a partner of, anyone else.” The rule does not apply to two people traveling together who are roommates.

The change creates less paperwork and less confusion.

In 1990, I was traveling in Asia for several weeks with my partner and returned to the U.S. through Hawaii. Because of how much we bought in Hong Kong, we purchased an extra suitcase. All of our new clothing and other household items were packed in the one suitcase, but when we got to the Customs line, the agent insisted we go through separately.

My partner went first and had the extra bag, but I had all of the receipts.

“How much was this?” the agent asked.

“I don’t know,” my partner said. “He has the receipts.”

She kept asking, and he kept answering the same thing. She grew more and more frustrated. He remained calm but firm. We had the receipts. I just happened to have them, and at her insistence, I remained behind the line, but within earshot. So I pulled out some of the receipts and flashed them at her, which made her more frustrated.

After about 10 minutes of getting no answers from him and seeing the receipts she so desired just outside of her grasp, she relented and put us through Customs together. In 1990. She even combined our $400 per person maximum allowance to the $800 a couple received then. What she found in the bag was about $792 worth of purchases, and we made it through without owing a penny in duty. And were treated as a couple. And the sky didn’t fall.