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Same-sex divorce: Massachusetts views civil unions as marriage

When is a same-sex marriage in Massachusetts not a lawful marriage? A recently ruling by our state Supreme Court held that another state's civil union would be recognized as a marriage in the Bay State. The case involved a same-sex couple that was married here. During a subsequent same-sex divorce proceeding, one party learned that his spouse had entered a civil union in a neighboring state in 2003.

As a result of this discovery, the man filed a motion to dismiss the divorce, asserting that the still legally valid civil union voided the subsequent Massachusetts marriage. The court agreed with him. Recognizing the civil union as a marriage, the court held that the Massachusetts marriage was void from the start because it was considered polygamy. The court observed that polygamy is barred, from which there was no exception.

The opposing side argued that Vermont, where the civil union took place, did not automatically acknowledge a civil union as the equivalent of a same-sex marriage when its laws were amended to allow them. However, the Massachusetts court said that it was not persuaded by this argument. The court found that recognizing the Vermont civil union in Massachusetts would avoid a significant amount of confusion that would result were it to hold otherwise.

Thus, an individual who previously participated in a civil union in another state must dissolve that union legally before marrying in Massachusetts. If the union is not dissolved, no legal marriage can occur here. And without a legal marriage, there can be no same-sex divorce. Those affected may benefit from the right advice to resolve prior civil unions lawfully before seeking to marry.

Source: The Boston Globe, "Massachusetts high court says it recognizes Vermont civil unions as marriages," Martin Finucane, July 26, 2012

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