Divorce and Dissolution of Out-Of-State Civil Unions

I have previously written about New York’s recognition of foreign marriages, including same-sex marriages and divorce. While same-sex marriage and divorce are becoming more common, some states have incorporated civil unions into their statutes as an alternative to same-sex marriage.  One of New York’s neighbors, Vermont, has permitted such civil unions for some time.  Until recently, it was unclear what position New York courts would take if the parties who entered into a civil union sought divorce, or dissolution of that union in New York.

In B.S. v. F.B., 2009 N.Y. Slip Op. 29315 (Sup. Ct. Westchester Co. 2009), the court had to decide whether it could grant a divorce to a couple who entered into a civil union in Vermont.

In B.S., the parties have resided together for a number of years. In October 2003 the parties entered into a “Civil Union” in the state of Vermont. In 2009, plaintiff by Summons with Notice and Verified Complaint commenced an action in Westchester County Supreme Court seeking dissolution of “the marriage between the parties” on DRL § 170 (1) grounds of cruel and inhuman treatment.

The Vermont statute, effective July 1, 2000, provides that parties to a civil union be entitled to “the benefits and protections” and “be subject to the rights and responsibilities” of “spouses” (Vermont Stat Ann, Title 15, § 1201 [2]). Civil union affords “all the same benefits, protections and responsibilities under law, whether they derive from statute, administrative or court rule, policy, common law or any other source of civil law, as are granted to spouses in a marriage” (Vermont Stat Ann, Title 15 § 1204 [a]). A party to a civil union is included in the definition of the term spouse, family, immediate family, dependent, next of kin and “other terms that denote the spousal relationship, as those terms are used throughout the law.” (Vermont Stat Ann, Title 15, § 1204 [b].) Parties to a civil union are responsible for support “to the same degree and in the same manner as prescribed under the law for married persons” (Vermont Stat Ann, Title 15, § 1204 [c]). Annulment, separation, divorce, child custody and support, property division and maintenance apply to parties to a civil union (Vermont Stat Ann, Title 15, § 1204 [d]).

Defendant argued that New York courts lacked jurisdiction to grant a divorce in a situation where the parties entered into a civil union, as opposed to a marriage. After discussing how neighboring states treated civil unions and whether or not those states were able to grant divorce to the couples who entered into civil unions, the court examined New York’s law dealing with these issues.

The Supreme Court stated that New York has not attempted to create any method by which same sex partners can “legalize” their relationships. In the absence of such a rule, regulation or statute, this Court has no precedent or authority to use as a standard to address plaintiff’s application herein. New York’s judicial position with respect to permitting same sex marriage is currently articulated in Hernandez v. Robles, 7 N.Y.3d 338 (2006). In Hernandez, the New York Court of Appeals declined to extend the right to marry to the same sex couples.

New York courts have recognized same sex unions celebrated in a sister state or foreign country by application of the principal of full faith and credit. By extending full faith and credit to same sex marriages from other jurisdictions, New York has recognized the same sex spouse’s right to health and other insurance benefits; in estate proceedings to qualify as a surviving spouse in the probate of an intestate estate; and in divorce actions. See Martinez v. County of Monroe, 50 A.D.3d 189 (4th Dept. 2008). But the essential predicate for Martinez and subsequent judicial determinations was the existence of a valid marriage.

As a matter of comity, New York courts will generally recognize out -of-state marriages, including common law marriages, unless barred by positive law (statute) or natural law (incest, polygamy), or where the marriage was otherwise offensive to public policy. While falling short of placing a civil union on the same level as a valid marriage, New York has evidenced by executive and local orders a clear commitment to respect, uphold and protect parties to same sex relationships and their families. The Vermont Legislature’s decision to create a civil union was an recognition of the right of same sex couples to have some legal protections and some of the rights and responsibilities of opposite sex married people.

At the same time, civil unions were never treated by New York court as equal to marriage. Therefore, the court felt constrained by judicial precedent and legislative inaction and  held that it could not treat the civil union as a marriage and, therefore, could not grant a divorce. Yet, after finding that it could not grant a divorce under New York law, the court attempted to come up with a road map for the parties and stated that if the plaintiff plead a complaint to dissolve a Vermont civil union, New York Supreme Court would have jurisdiction to hear and decide the case.

While New York Supreme Court has the general jurisdiction to hear and decide all equitable civil actions, it is unclear to me whether it could dissolve a civil union in the absence of some action by New York’s Legislature. For a divorce lawyer, the above represents an excellent example of uncertainty created by the lack of uniformity in the states’ treatment of same-sex relationships. It also brings up a host of interesting legal issues that attorneys must recognize in handling similar situations.

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