In what some may construe as an effort by the Pennsylvania Superior Court to salvage something positive out of 2016, an Opinion was issued today which effectively opens Pennsylvania’s family courts to dissolve out-of-state civil unions
The matter of Neyman v. Buckley (No. 2203 EDA 2015) arose out of Philadelphia County. The parties were attempting to have their 2002 Vermont civil union dissolved in the Philadelphia Family Court. The trial court, however, dismissed the divorce complaint related to the civil union on the basis that it did not have jurisdiction over the action. The trial court based its decision on statutory language which established the court’s jurisdiction to divorce parties from the “bonds of matrimony” and, therefore, could not issue a decree or order dissolving the out-of-state civil union.
The other problem in this case, was that Pennsylvania County examined the Vermont code and saw the procedural separation between dissolving civil unions and marriages. In short, Vermont retained a legal distinction between marriages and civil unions, though they gave them the same rights and access to the family courts. It was on this basis that the Philadelphia court dismissed the complaint to dissolve the civil union and noted that the action sounded more specifically in the civil trial division (i.e. address the civil union as a contract).
Neither party was contesting the dissolution of their civil union. They entered into the union in July 2002 before same-sex marriage was legal and began living separate and apart five months later in December. Since then, they have been living in legal limbo without having residency in a state to dissolve their union or access to the court’s due to Pennsylvania’s Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
Many family law practitioners, myself included, have successfully dissolved civil unions in some counties, but those courts which did so in some ways hindered the clarification of this issue. Despite the decisions legalizing same-sex marriage and invalidating Pennsylvania’s DOMA, the state legislature has not updated the marriage and divorce codes to account for the new law of the land. Without legislative action, it would be the appellate courts which would shape the law and offer some precedence to clarify the question as to what types of unions can be addressed by the family courts.
Within this context, the Philadelphia court, in denying the dissolution of an uncontested, no economic issue case, did Pennsylvania law a tremendous favor: it created a test case for which the Superior Court could weigh the argument offered by the trial court and conclude that, “the legal properties of a Vermont civil union weigh in favor of recognizing such unions as the legal equivalent of marriage for purposes of dissolution under the [Pennsylvania] Divorce Code.” Citing prior case law (Himmelberger), the civil union has a distinct “odor of marriage” and that the only substantive difference between a civil union and a marriage are “sexual orientation and semantics.”
The strong Pennsylvania public policy in favor of granting comity to another state’s laws so long as they do not contradict those of the Commonwealth was also cited by the Superior Court. Pennsylvania family courts “must recognize their Vermont civil union as the legal equivalent of a marriage for the purpose of dissolution.”
Accordingly, the Superior Court reversed the Philadelphia County dismissal of the complaint and remanded it back to the Family Court to be addressed under Pennsylvania Divorce law. Practically speaking, this decision means issuing a Decree dissolving their civil union upon application by the parties and unambiguously establishing the Family Courts as a venue for dissolving civil unions.