My Spouse and I Entered into a Civil Union in Another State, But Never Married. Can We Get Divorced in Maryland?

Sometimes, people assume that all of the potential complications and challenges faced by long-term committed same-sex couples ended when the U.S. Supreme Court made its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges in June 2015 that established marriage equality in all 50 states. That, of course, is far from always being true. If you’re a same-sex couple — especially if you’re a same-sex couple seeking a divorce –- there are still many potential hurdles that may be in your way. If you and your partner entered into a civil union and not a marriage, those hurdles can be even more numerous. However, with the help of an experienced Maryland family law attorney, you can get the divorce you need, whether yours was a civil union or marriage, and whether it happened in Maryland or out of state.

M.R. and S.S. were a gay couple who faced some of those exact hurdles in their divorce case recently. The men entered into a civil union in Vermont in 2003. They eventually moved to Montgomery County but, even after same-sex marriage became legal in Maryland in 2013, they never married.

By 2018, the relationship had broken down and S.S. filed for divorce in Montgomery County. S.S. sought as part of his divorce action, an award of alimony, an award of child support, property division (including a monetary award,) along with custody of the couple’s two children.

M.R. argued that the trial court in Montgomery County could make a determination about child custody and child support but could not award S.S. the divorce he sought. A civil union, M.R. argued, was not the same as a marriage and the law did not give the courts authority to dissolve a marriage that never existed.

The couple did not meet Vermont law’s requirements for getting a Vermont dissolution, so if the Maryland court did not have jurisdiction, then S.S. could have been stuck in the same type of quandary that certain same-sex couples faced before marriage equality came to all 50 state in the summer of 2015. Before June 2015, a couple could possibly get married in a state that recognized same-sex marriage but, if they later moved to a non-marriage equality state, find themselves with no judicial forum in which to get divorced. (One Massachusetts lesbian couple made news after they moved to Florida, as the latter state refused to grant a divorce, leaving the couple in limbo until the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell ruling made same-sex marriage (and, with it, same-sex divorce) legal in Florida.

How the legal concept of ‘comity’ can help if you were married (or united) out of state

The Court of Special Appeals sided with S.S. and ruled that the Maryland courts do have the authority to dissolve Vermont civil unions. Even if civil unions were distinct from marriages, by the very explicit terms of the Vermont statutory law, the dissolution of a Vermont civil union was the same in terms of procedures, “substantive rights and obligations” as a dissolution of marriage.

This meant that granting the dissolution of a Vermont same-sex civil union was the same as granting a dissolution of a same-sex marriage. Back in 2012, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that a legal concept known as “comity” applied to same-sex marriage law. That concept of comity meant that, even though Maryland statutory law (at that time) barred same-sex marriage, the Maryland courts could recognize an out-of-state same-sex marriage under comity and “apply Maryland’s divorce laws to dissolve the parties’ same-sex marriage.” Similarly, comity gave Maryland courts the power to dissolve a Vermont civil union.

So, if you and your partner entered into a civil union in some other state and even if you never took the additional step of getting married, you can still utilize the Maryland courts to get your divorce and divorce-related relief. To get the effective and reliable legal advice and advocacy you need for your divorce case, talk to the skilled Maryland family law attorneys at Anthony A. Fatemi, LLC. Our attorneys have a wealth of experience helping a wide array of families navigate the Maryland divorce process. To learn more about how we can help you, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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