Civil Union Dissolution
Our dedicated team of Family Law Attorneys understands the complex intricacies that accompany civil unions and same-sex marriages in the current legal landscape. We strive to alleviate the additional stressors that are unique to civil unions and same-sex marriages by staying on top of new cases as they are decided by the Courts and following the statutory developments as they are enacted in this cutting edge area of family law. As the legislatures begin to update outdated laws in compliance with recently decided Supreme Court cases, we continue to strive to be knowledgeable on the latest developments in this evolving area of law.
Currently, the Pennsylvania Statues do not recognize same-sex marriages or civil unions. The statutory language in Pennsylvania specifically states that marriage is “one man and one woman” taking each other for “husband and wife.” The statutes even go as far as having a specific section relating to “Marriage between persons of the same-sex,” which states that marriage is between one man and one woman and even if individuals of the same-sex are legally joined in another jurisdiction, the union is “void in [Pennsylvania].”
However, in direct contradiction with the Pennsylvania Statutes, the 2014 U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania decision, Whitewood v. Wolf, 992 F. Supp. 2d 410, held as unconstitutional the sections of the Pennsylvania Statutes which define marriage as between one man and one woman and state that civil unions performed in other jurisdictions are void. The Court further held that because the laws are unconstitutional, Pennsylvania is permanently enjoined from enforcing these laws. As a result of their ruling, the Court further held that same-sex couples who seek to marry in Pennsylvania are permitted to do so, and already married same-sex couples will be recognized as such in Pennsylvania.
Additionally, one year later in 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court, in Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584, held that same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry in all States and that there is no lawful basis for a State to refuse to recognize a lawful same-sex marriage performed in another State on the ground of its same-sex character. While the Supreme Court did not address civil unions in Obergefell, it would follow that in recognizing same-sex marriages, civil unions will also be treated as marriages for the purposes of dissolution.
Consistent with these two federal decisions, in December 2016, the Pennsylvania Superior Court published an opinion that held that a Vermont civil union should be considered the legal equivalent of a marriage for the purposes of dissolution under the Pennsylvania Divorce Code (Neyman v. Buckley, 2016 PA Super 307). In that case, two same-sex individuals entered into a civil union in Vermont, where civil unions are legally recognized. Subsequently, this couple moved to Pennsylvania and eventually wished to end their civil union. They filed under the Pennsylvania Divorce Code but were denied by the lower court because Pennsylvania does not recognize civil unions. Even though the Pennsylvania Statutes say differently, the decision in this case has set a precedent for Pennsylvania Courts to consider civil unions the legal equivalent of marriages for the purposes of legally dissolving the union under the Pennsylvania Divorce Code.
Under the current legal landscape, while Pennsylvania statutes do not allow same-sex marriages, civil unions, divorces or dissolutions, same-sex marriages and civil unions have now been legally recognized since the 2014 federal middle district court case and individuals may now do so in the same manner as a man and woman marriage and divorce in Pennsylvania. As with most evolving areas of law and social policy, navigating the legal system can be complicated. Please feel free to contact this office to schedule a consultation with one of our experienced family law attorneys to discuss your legal options in Pennsylvania if you are considering a civil union dissolution or same-sex marriage divorce.
New Jersey has a statutory Civil Union Act that specifically states that “Civil union couples shall have all of the same benefits, protections and responsibilities under law, whether they derive from statute, administrative or court rule, public policy, common law or any other source of civil law, as are granted to spouses in a marriage.” Further, the statute states that the procedure for dissolution of civil unions is to follow the same procedures and be subject to the same rights and obligations that are involved in the dissolution of a marriage. Essentially, the statute creates a parallel system to traditional marriage for same-sex couples.
The Courts in New Jersey have also addressed same-sex marriage. In 2013, the Superior Court expanded on a New Jersey Supreme Court decision and held that New Jersey must “extend civil marriage to same-sex couples to satisfy the equal protection guarantees of the New Jersey Constitution as interpreted by the New Jersey Supreme Court” and that “[s]ame-sex couples must be allowed to marry in order to obtain equal protection of the law under the New Jersey Constitution.”
If you are considering ending your civil union or same-sex marriage, please feel free to contact this office and meet with one of our experienced family law attorneys to discuss your legal options.