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Same Sex Marriage: Pennsylvania allows dissolution of same sex civil unions under divorce laws

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has recently ruled that same sex civil unions may be dissolved in Pennsylvania under the same laws that apply to married couples.  The significance of the decision in this case, Neyman v. Buckley, is easier to understand from a historical perspective.

In 2000, Vermont became the first state to allow civil unions between couples of the same gender.  Because civil unions did not create the same rights and benefits of the current, more common marriages, the way to terminate the relationship was undefined. In 2009, when the Vermont legislature recognized same sex marriage, they established separate legal methods for dissolving a civil union or divorcing a marital spouse. Since same sex couples can now marry and divorce in any state, it is unclear whether those joined in civil unions must return to Vermont to officially end their relationship.

On June 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of U.S. v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013), held that it was unconstitutional under the 5th Amendment for the government to issue laws denying individuals the right to marry based on their sexual orientation.  As a result, state courts and legislatures have tried to develop fair and consistent laws about marriage and divorce for same sex couples. In Pennsylvania, Middle District Federal Judge John E. Jones first ruled on May 20, 2014 that the state laws limiting marriage rights to a man and a woman were unconstitutional, in the case of Whitewood v. Wolf. (See our Blog on the Whitewood case)

Most significantly, in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case of Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S.Ct. 2584 (2015), that each state must recognize same sex marriages entered in other states.   Since the Supreme Court only referenced “marriage” as the subject of their decisions, the question remained whether individuals ‘wed’ through civil unions rather than marriages may have their unions dissolved in any state jurisdiction.

Recently in Pennsylvania, on December 28, 2016, in the case of Neyman v. Buckley, the Superior Court ruled to that Pennsylvania courts may dissolve civil unions under the existing Divorce Code.  The Court ruled that “a Vermont civil union “creates the functional equivalent of marriage for the purposes of dissolution.”  The trial Court had previously dismissed Freda Neyman’s complaint in divorce against Florence Buckley, saying that Pennsylvania did not have jurisdiction to dissolve a civil union created under Vermont law because the Divorce Code allows divorce only from “bonds of matrimony.”   Considering the legal principle of “comity” on appeal, the Superior Court found instead that the laws of another state should be enforceable “out of deference and mutual respect.”  Since civil unions are treated as the equivalent of marriage, the Court ruled that same sex couples in unions deserve the same divorce options as others, including opposite-sex couples, when their marriage fails.

It remains to be seen how the court will decide issues of property division and support in cases involving both civil unions and subsequent marriages of same sex couples.  If you want to know more about divorce laws and related issues, contact the Mazza Law Group to speak to an experienced family law attorney.