Jan 24

Divorce Allowed to Partners In an Out-of-State Civil Union – A Piece of the Windsor Legacy

In a case of first impression in Pennsylvania entitled Neyman v. Buckley[1], the Pennsylvania Superior Court, the Commonwealth’s intermediate appellate court, held that a Pennsylvania Family Court has jurisdiction to grant a divorce to a same-sex couple residing in Pennsylvania who had entered into a civil union in Vermont many years earlier.  The ruling allows a Pennsylvania Family Court to address issues incident to divorce such as alimony and equitable distribution.

In 2002 the couple, then residents of Pennsylvania, entered into a civil union in Vermont.  Vermont was the first state to offer civil unions.  Civil unions are not and have never been sanctioned under Pennsylvania law.  Later in 2002 the couple separated.  In 2014 the couple, then living in Pennsylvania, filed for divorce in Pennsylvania.  The trial judge dismissed the divorce complaint on the basis that the couple was not married and therefore the Family Court did not have jurisdiction to grant a divorce.

At issue in this case was the legal principle of “comity.”  Comity is the concept that states recognize and respect each other’s laws even where those laws differ.  Under Vermont law the rights and responsibilities of the partners in a civil union are the same as those of a married couple under Vermont law.  In view of the parity of civil unions and marriage under Vermont law — and applying principles of comity — the Court found that it had jurisdiction to treat the civil union the same as if the couple were married.  In making its ruling, the Pennsylvania Superior Court stated:

Precluding family court jurisdiction simply due to the use of the word ‘marriage’ and ‘divorce’ in Pennsylvania jurisdictional authority elevates mere semantics over the fundamental domestic character of [civil unions].

In its landmark 2013 decision United States v. Windsor, the United States Supreme Court held that all states most afford same-sex couples the right to marry.  While the direct impact of Windsor is clear, its implications to a variety of related legal issues such as civil unions, adoptions, custody, inheritance, tax matters, premarital agreements and other legal matters it touches on, is vast.  By its decision in Neyman v. Buckley the Pennsylvania Superior Court has addressed one piece of this multi-faceted puzzle.  No doubt over time the courts will fill-in other pieces of the Windsor puzzle.

[1] Through January 27, 2017 this case may still be appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

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