This week I obtained a Divorce Decree on behalf of a same-sex spouse in Montgomery County. What makes this Decree interesting and worth noting is that I believe it to be one of the first examples of a Pennsylvania court exercising full faith and credit to dissolve an out-of-state civil union under the Divorce Code, rather than a marriage.
The parties in this case have been separated for over three years and neither sought any economic damages from the other. After their civil union in New Jersey (which they obtained prior to New Jersey legalizing same-sex marriage), the couple found themselves relocated to Pennsylvania where they separated shortly thereafter. In the media coverage surrounding the marriage equality issue, it is not uncommon to hear of same-sex couples finding themselves in legal limbo after having moved to a non-recognition state. Such was the case of my client who, while wanting to legally sever ties with his spouse, could not relocate to New Jersey or elsewhere for the requisite amount of time to establish residency and file to dissolve the civil union.
The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania case of Whitewood v. Wolf changed that for him and other spouses in similar situations.
Since the Whitewood v. Wolf case established Pennsylvania’s Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional, Pennsylvania joined eighteen (18) other states recognizing same-sex marriage. Not only did this ruling allow same-sex couples in Pennsylvania to marry, but it also opened up the recognition of same-sex marriages and civil unions legally entered into in other states.
Whenever a court ruling precedes statutory reform, there can be some ambiguity as to how the new law will practically operate. While I had every expectation that a same-sex marriage could receive a divorce, a civil union, while similar in substance, is different in form from marriages.
New Jersey’s “Civil Union Law” is the predecessor to the New Jersey Superior Court decision in Garden State Equality v. Dow, which legalized same-sex marriage. The Garden State Equality builds upon the New Jersey case, Lewis v. Harris, 188 N.J. 415 (2006), which unanimously held that “the New Jersey Constitution guarantees same-sex couples in committed relationships the same rights and benefits as married couples of the opposite sex.”
The Whitewood case established that Pennsylvania needs to extend full faith and credit to the New Jersey civil union and has an obligation to provide a legal remedy for the dissolution of the parties’ civil union. Access to the legal system to dissolve the civil union is what makes my client’s case and those like it so important. Even without a revised Divorce Code, parties can seek redress in Pennsylvania’s family courts to dissolve their out-of-state marriages and civil unions.
(Photo Credit – Douglas Muth)
Aaron Weems is an attorney and editor of the Pennsylvania Family Law Blog. Aaron is a partner in Fox Rothschild’s Blue Bell, Pennsylvania office and practices throughout the greater Philadelphia region. Aaron can be reached at 610-397-7989; firstname.lastname@example.org, and on Twitter @AaronWeemsAtty.