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Pennsylvania divorce for out-of-state civil unions

Same-sex marriage and civil unions have brought changes to the traditional marriage and have presented new family law and divorce legal issues for Pennsylvania courts. Recently, the Superior Court ruled that women who entered a civil union in Vermont in 2002 could obtain a Pennsylvania divorce in 2016, although this state did not recognize same-sex marriages 15-years ago.

This decision is one of the few court decisions that address the unique issue of whether Pennsylvania can dissolve a same-sex marriage entered 14 years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that these marriages were valid in the entire country. Pennsylvania did not recognize these marriages until the Supreme Court's ruling in 2015.

The Superior Court reversed a Philadelphia Family Court decision and ruled that courts in this state must recognize Vermont civil unions as being the functional equivalent of a valid Pennsylvania marriage governed by this state's divorce laws. The Court stated that the Vermont legislature, approving same-sex marriages in 2009, allowed couples in a civil union to marry without going through further legal procedures and had to dissolve these unions, if they wanted to marry other people.

Moreover, failure to recognize a Vermont civil union could constitute discrimination. This would penalize the parties for their same-sex status because Vermont law specifically granted same-sex couples with equivalent rights only available to opposite couples through marriage in 2002.

In this case, the couple entered a civil union in Vermont when it was the first state in the nation to recognize same-sex unions. Five months later, however, they separated. They filed affidavits of consent to dissolve their civil union in 2014, while one of the partners filed a divorce/dissolution complaint with the Philadelphia family court.

Couples should seek legal representation to help assure that they can pursue their options under changing laws and court cases governing marriage and divorce. An attorney can help assure that their rights to child support, alimony and custody are protected in these cases.

Source: The Patriot-News, "Same-sex divorce: Pa. court voids ruling blocking women from ending out-of-state civil union," Matt Miller, Dec. 28, 2016

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