Ending a relationship is always difficult, but it may be even more trying if you and your spouse made multiple legal commitments to each other -- perhaps in a number of different localities or states. For example, you may have registered as domestic partners in California when you were on vacation in San Francisco, then continued on to Hawaii where you celebrated your honeymoon by registering as reciprocal beneficiary partners there. Then, when same-sex marriages became legal in your home state of Iowa, you enthusiastically tied the knot. But now that you’re splitting up, what should you do?
If you are in this situation, begin by understanding that you are not alone. Many couples whose home states did not recognize their relationships thought that going elsewhere to make a legal commitment sounded like a great idea. Unfortunately, almost every couple with multiple registrations must take extra steps when they decide to separate.
Remaining married, registered, or partnered means that you are still legally and financially bound to your partner. Even if your union didn’t seem legally significant when you registered, time may change that. Consider that a New Jersey civil union wasn’t recognized as a marriage equivalent in New York City just a few years ago, but now that New York has legalized same-sex marriage, a New Jersey registration could make you jointly liable in New York state; it may even require you to pay spousal support.
If any of your registrations are local -- for instance, if you registered with your employer or city -- they probably don't involve a lot of legal rights. For the sake of clarity, you should end those formal partnerships, but there aren’t likely to be financial consequences if you forget. On the other hand, state-level partnerships or marriages must be legally terminated. Especially if your registrations include marital rights and duties, you need to dissolve them so you are not ordered to share property with your ex-partner, kept on the hook for your ex’s debts, or liable for spousal support.
If you die while you are still married, registered, or partnered, your ex may be entitled to inherit your property. And an existing legal partnership will prevent you from marrying or registering with someone new. For all of these reasons, if you created a formal partnership in any state, you should take steps to legally terminate it.
Registrations with employers, cities, and counties are easy to end. Each locality will have its own termination form. All you have to do is obtain it, complete it, and turn it in. Your partner may not even have to sign the form. (You should, however, notify your ex of the action you’ve taken. Send the form to your partner’s last known address -- even if that’s your own home. If the issue comes up later, you can show that you tried.)
It’s usually much more complicated to terminate a state registration or marriage. Sometimes -- for example, if you are a California domestic partner who owns no real estate and has few assets -- you can file a simple termination form, but that’s not the norm. Most states require you to go through the same divorce process as opposite-sex couples.
If you have multiple state registrations, try to file for termination in the state where you first registered, and ask the court to end all subsequent partnerships at the same time. Or, begin by taking steps to end the registration that's legally the strongest. (In other words, if you’re married and registered as domestic partners, terminate the marriage and try to get the court to end the domestic partnership at the same time.) If you’re unsure about how to proceed, a qualified family law attorney can help you decide which steps to take first.
Problems can arise when divorce courts are involved. If your current home state doesn't recognize same-sex relationships, your local court may refuse to grant a divorce for a marriage entered elsewhere. The judge may be even more reluctant if faced with multiple registrations from different states.
At this point, you might be thinking it would be easiest to return to the state where you married and end your partnership there -- but most states impose residency requirements for divorce, some as long as one year. California is an exception, however, allowing anyone who registered there to get a divorce in the state regardless of where they live; other states with marriage equivalent relationships are beginning to do the same. So if you're registered as domestic partners in California and you live in another state, you’ll probably be able to terminate your partnership by sending your paperwork to the California court. This is not true for a California marriage, however. You will need to appear in the state in person.
If the residency requirement in the state where you married or registered isn’t too long, you have the option of establishing residency and getting your divorce without actually moving to the state. Before taking this drastic measure, however, you may want to look for a different judge in your home state -- one who better understands your situation.
As a last resort, some couples file for an annulment on the grounds that their out-of-state registration is technically invalid. From a political perspective, this isn’t recommended, because it's never a good idea to denounce a same-sex relationship as illegal. If you’re truly stuck, however, you may find it necessary to take this drastic step.
If you need to terminate multiple registrations, hiring a good divorce lawyer could be your best bet. It may not be easy -- or inexpensive -- but you need to ensure that your legal situation reflects your real life.
For a thorough, easy-to-understand guide to same-sex relationships, see Making It Legal: A Guide to Same-Sex Marriage, Domestic Partnerships & Civil Unions, by Frederick Hertz with Emily Doskow.