Pennsylvania to Allow Out-of-State Civil Unions to Divorce
The Pennsylvania courts have made life easier for those couples who entered into a civil union in another state and now want to divorce in Pennsylvania. Since Pennsylvania did not allow same-sex marriages until May 2014, many were left to marry or enter into civil unions in other states. Up until the December 2016 Superior Court decision in Neyman v. Buckley, it was unclear if those civil unions could be dissolved by divorce in the Pennsylvania family courts.
The couple in the above case were Pennsylvania residents who entered into a civil union in Vermont in July 2002. The couple separated and tried to divorce in 2014 through the Philadelphia County Family Court. However, the Philadelphia County court dismissed the couple’s divorce complaint under the premise that the law in Pennsylvania only allows for divorce “from the bonds of matrimony.” Since the couple entered into a civil union and not a marriage, the Philadelphia family court believed they had no jurisdiction over the matter. The impact of this is significant since the family court has the power to deal with issues related to a divorce like dividing property, support and custody. Without access to the family court, it would be extremely difficult for couples in a civil union to resolve those issues.
Fortunately for the couple, the Superior Court overruled the Philadelphia court and unanimously decided that Pennsylvania family courts can dissolve out of state civil unions. In 2015, the United States Supreme Court decided that states must recognize same-sex marriages entered into in other states. The Pennsylvania Superior Court believes that should also apply to civil unions. In light of that, the Superior Court found the Philadelphia court’s reasoning to be “mere semantics” over the characterization of marriage. Civil unions should be treated the same way as marriages for purposes of dissolution. Those same-sex couples should not be penalized because their only option at the time was to enter into a civil union.
So for those couples living in Pennsylvania who entered into civil unions in other states, you now will have the option for court intervention in the event there are issues over divorce, custody or support. As always, you should consult with an experienced family law attorney to discuss the specific facts of your case.