Global Family Law Services

Gay Divorce: How Do You Get Divorced When the State Doesn’t Think You’re Married

| Jul 11, 2013 | Same-Sex Marriage

As many gay celebrities poise to marry after the US Supreme Court declared the Federal Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) unconstitutional last month, Jane Lynch and wife Dr. Lara Embry, who were married in 2010 in Sunderland, Massachusetts, are preparing to divorce. The question is, will their home state of California allow them to dissolve their marriage? While Lynch and Embry were able to have their Massachusetts marriage legally recognized in California, they would not have found themselves in the same circumstances if their home state was Ohio or one of 36 other states that do not recognize same-sex marriages. And if the state doesn’t think you’re married, how can you get divorced? Even though DOMA was considered unconstitutional, the validity of marriage is still determined by each individual state. The US Constitution holds that each state must accord “full faith and credit” to the acts of other states. That means that if New York allows same-sex couples to marry, Ohio must recognize that marriage. Not so fast! While the Supremes declared Section 3 of DOMA which bans same-sex marriage as being unconstitutional, they did not address Section 2 which allows the states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. While Section 2 is in controversy with the Full Faith and Credit Clause, it has yet to be challenged or ruled unconstitutional. So where does that leave the Ohio same-sex couple who wishes to divorce? Somewhere in legal limbo. Ohio law does not only ban same-sex marriage, it does not recognize same-sex marriages that were performed in other states. In 1978, long before DOMA or Ohio’s official ban on same-sex marriage, two women attempted to divorce in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. Their case was dismissed on the basis that nothing in Ohio’s law provided for same-sex marriage. In the 8th Appellate District decision that affirmed the trial court’s decision to dismiss, Judge Day concurred “American conceptions of Equal Protection have not developed far enough to reach the Equal Protection arguments made in this case.” Irwin v. Lupardus, 1980 Ohio App. LEXIS 12106 (Ohio Ct. App., Cuyahoga County June 26, 1980). It seems that we have still not developed far enough. In 2012, a gay couple was able to get divorced in Franklin County. Days later a lesbian couple was denied divorce in the same court. Judge Jim Mason ruled that “Because same-sex marriages have no legal effect in Ohio … the court is required to dismiss any dissolution or divorce proceeding requesting the termination of same-sex marriage for lack of jurisdiction.” It is probable that the couple that divorced was successful because they used a private judge that was appointed by the Court and who specializes in alternative dispute resolution. In an interesting side note that seems to have largely escaped media attention, the lesbian couple subsequently divorced in a different Ohio county. It is apparent that different courts and trial judges are interpreting the issue quite differently, and this area of law will doubtless continue to develop. In order to avoid traditional litigation, parties can utilize a private judge. Ohio Revised Code § 2701.10 provides that retired judges may hear civil actions. The couple must agree to have their case decided by a retired judge, and these retired/private judges do charge for their services meaning it will be a good bit more expensive than litigation through an active judge or magistrate. The retired judge is given all powers as an active judge and the retired judge’s findings will be filed with the court. Any judgment made by the retired judge will have the same weight, and is appealable, as if made by an active judge. However, in order for the parties to appeal, they must hire a court reporter so that there is some sort of record of the proceedings. Whether or not this private method of litigation will continue to be successful in divorcing same-sex couples remains to be seen. As previously mentioned in this blog, there are ways for same-sex couples to dissolve their marriage without obtaining a traditional dissolution or divorce. These other methods are costly and oftentimes involve multiple lawsuits, especially if children are involved. A cheaper option – the Domestic Partnership Agreement – can be executed by all couples whether they are gay, lesbian, or heterosexual. This contract can outline every term that could be contained in a divorce decree – only at the beginning of the relationship rather than at the end. Sort of a Prenuptial Agreement, without the nuptials. This method is not only helpful to unmarried Ohio couples that buy a home together, intermingle funds, and/or raise children together, but for those same-sex couples who are legally married in another state, find themselves residing in Ohio, and are now looking for a way to end the marriage. Just this week the ACLU filed a suit in Pennsylvania challenging that state’s gay marriage ban. Similar lawsuits are sure to follow in other states, including Ohio. Until then it is important for same-sex couples residing in states like Ohio that do not recognize same-sex marriages, to be proactive in outlining issues such as finance and property division, future support, and child custody and visitation decisions in a document such as a Domestic Partnership Agreement.