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How A Civil Union Affects Divorce

Recently the PA Superior Court decided a case about a same sex couple who underwent a civil union ceremony in Vermont in 2002 and wanted to get divorced in Pennsylvania, because they lived in Pennsylvania.  Vermont was the first state in the U.S. to allow civil unions for same sex couples.  Back in 2002 same sex marriage wasn't recognized in the U.S.  The Vermont legislature enacted the civil union laws to create legal equality between these relationships and those based on marriage.  All of Vermont's divorce and property division laws also applied to the civil unions.  Vermont eventually recognized same sex marriage in their state in 2009; however, a couple had to dissolve their civil union before the individuals could marry someone else.

                The couple later separated and filed divorce paperwork in Pennsylvania in 2014.  The court dismissed their complaint based on the Pennsylvania rule of civil procedure that the court can only divorce people from the "bonds of matrimony", (it did not equate a civil union with marriage) and that the court wasn't obligated to recognize a Vermont civil union as a marriage, and PA courts couldn't dissolve Vermont civil unions.

                The U.S. Supreme Court decided the Obergefell case in 2015.  Obergefell said that states have to recognize same sex marriages entered into in other states.  The PA Superior Court considered whether the legal principle of comity (recognizing and honoring laws and decisions from other states)  would force PA to recognize a Vermont civil union as the legal equivalent of marriage, for the purposes of divorce.  The PA Superior Court noted generally that foreign (other states') marriages were valid, and decided that a Vermont civil union was the functional equivalent of a marriage for the purpose of divorce.

                 What can this mean for you?  This case was limited to Vermont civil unions being recognized in PA for divorce purposes.  This should help promote uniformity between states and prevent people from "shopping" for a state which could be perceived as having more favorable divorce laws.  Also, it means that Pennsylvania residents don't have to go to Vermont to get the rights they signed up for in Vermont.

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