Friday, August 10, 2012

Marriage after civil unions

On July 26, 2012, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued an opinion in the matter of Elia-Warnken v. Elia. This case involved a same-sex couple who was in the midst of divorce litigation. The issue brought before the SJC was "Whether or not a Vermont civil union must be dissolved before either party to that civil union can enter into a valid marriage in Massachusetts to a third party." (link to opinion here) 

Elia-Warnken had entered into a Vermont civil union that he never dissolved. Thereafter, he married Elia, who argued that the marriage was void due to polygamy. Here's the tough part:  Vermont eventually went on to recognize same-sex marriage, but specifically stated that civil unions then existing would not automatically convert to marriage. Since Massachusetts expressly refused to create civil unions in lieu of marriage, wouldn't it make sense that a Vermont civil union be treated differently from a Massachusetts marriage?

The Court looked at the language behind Vermont's civil unions to determine that they, at the time created, were meant to provide the same protections and advantages to same-sex couples as marriage, defined as "the voluntary union of two persons as spouses, to the exclusion of all others." Under the principles of comity, a state must give "respect and deference to the legislative enactments and public policy pronouncements of other jurisdictions," including out-of-state marriages. As such, Massachusetts views Vermont civil unions as the equivalent of an out-of-state  marriage.

The Justices further pointed out that allowing both the Massachusetts marriage and the Vermont civil union to remain intact would result in Elia-Warnken having similar obligations to two different people (his former partner and Elia), causing great confusion. Both parties could request child or spousal support from him, plus other benefits afforded under the law.

Bottom line:  Although this case applies to Vermont civil unions, it could easily apply to civil unions/domestic partnerships of other jurisdictions and countries, given the language used.  As such, couples looking to wed in Massachusetts should ensure that their out-of-state civil unions have been dissolved prior to getting married.

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