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Couples in Civil Unions Can Now Divorce in Pennsylvania

January 26th, 2017

By Brett J. Zeitlin

Couples in Civil Unions Can Now Divorce in PennsylvaniaSame sex couples gained the legal right to marry in the state of Pennsylvania in May 2014. And along with the right to get married came the right to dissolve that marriage through divorce. Now, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania has taken things a step further. Same sex couples joined in civil unions can now dissolve their union through divorce in the state of Pennsylvania.

Before Pennsylvania legally recognized same sex marriages, if a same sex couple got married in another state and then moved to Pennsylvania, that couple could not dissolve their marriage by divorce. They were barred from using the divorce statutes in Pennsylvania to dissolve their marriage because Pennsylvania state law did not recognize the existence of their marriage, and they were barred from requesting relief in the state where they actually got married because they were no longer residing in that state. Married same sex couples in that position were often referred to as being “wedlocked.” Since May 2014, Pennsylvania has recognized same sex marriage. As a result, Pennsylvania law now permits a same sex married couple residing in Pennsylvania to obtain a divorce in Pennsylvania regardless of where the marriage itself took place.

But the recognition of same sex marriages under Pennsylvania law was not a recognition or legitimization of civil unions. Pennsylvania has never recognized civil unions or domestic partnerships. Until recently, same sex couples in civil unions living in Pennsylvania had no legal way to dissolve their union, regardless of where the civil union was formed. They, too, were “wedlocked.”

On Dec. 28, 2016, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania unshackled civil union partners living in Pennsylvania. Neyman v. Buckley involved same sex partners that entered into a civil union in Vermont in 2002. The couple moved to Pennsylvania and filed for divorce in the Family Court of Philadelphia County in 2014. The trial court dismissed the Complaint for Divorce asserting that the Court had no authority to dissolve civil unions and that the Divorce Code was not applicable. The trial court decision notes that the Family court division can only divorce parties from the “bonds of matrimony.”

On appeal, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania disagreed. The Superior Court held that Pennsylvania state courts must treat civil unions as the legal equivalent of same sex marriages and, as such, they are fully subject to Pennsylvania divorce law. Judge Fitzgerald, writing for the court, declared that, “declining to acknowledge the parties’ civil union as the equivalent of marriage would essentially penalize the parties simply for their same-sex status …”

Now that it is possible, if you have questions about dissolving your civil union in Pennsylvania, please contact a family law attorney at Willig, Williams & Davidson for more information.

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