Remember that old rhyme from childhood, “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage”? Some things are just part of life and are simply inevitable. People will fall in love. People will join together in relationships. These are all positive, great things. Unfortunately, people—whether gay or straight—all have struggles in life and relationships. Inevitably, when Minnesota granted same-sex couples the right to marry, it was inevitable that same-sex divorces would happen, just as opposite-sex divorces happen. Gay couples who married before marriage was legal in Minnesota—whether they became married in another state or, because Minnesota borders with Canada, often in another country—may now face the need to obtain a divorce. If a gay couple separates and does not intend to share their lives together going forward, they should strongly consider finalizing their separation by obtaining a legal divorce in Minnesota. I have run into Minnesota gay couples who had no idea that they are now legally married. This viewpoint may be especially common for those couples who married in Canada years ago and then separated long before marriage was legal in Minnesota. For better or worse (pun intended), those couples continue to be married and need to divorce in order to clear up the division of their marital assets and debts. If they have children in common by adoption they need to determine their rights and responsibilities as to those children. Even if there is a non-joint child, which is common in same-sex marriages, the “non-parent” may be able to establish legally enforceable rights to visitation because of their significant connection with that child. Again, this is even though they are not legally “their” child. Because marriage creates an interest in real property (houses, etc.), the residence that the couple lived in or any other land and any mortgages (and any other debts) need to be addressed in the divorce. Before same-sex marriage was legal in Minnesota, it was difficult for same-sex couples to form legally enforceable rights and responsibilities related to a committed relationship. Perhaps that is why some same-sex couples have a hard time believing that they now must use the legal system to fully end their marriage relationship. By the way, I understand that Brangelina (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, for those who don’t follow popular culture!) had declared they wouldn’t get married until same sex couples everywhere could get married…but apparently they couldn’t wait, because they were recently married. Well, my theory is that they had to wait until Minnesota made same-sex marriage legal (it just took a year to plan the wedding)! Without getting divorced, a gay couple may find out later, to their surprise, that one of the pair is making a claim to part of the other’s retirement account or is holding up the sale or transfer of property that was owned during the marriage, because simply living separately doesn’t resolve all these issues. I expect that many same-sex couples will be unpleasantly surprised later in life that when they hear that they have to share their retirement with a partner from long ago that they never intended to share their retirement account with. Or, an inheritance may be held up–or never received as expected by a son or daughter–because of a claim for all or a share of the estate of a deceased same-sex spouse. These are topics that are addressed well in the Collaborative Process because they can be approached from a perspective of respect and honoring of the love that the couple previously shared, while laying a foundation for future separate lives. Now that same-sex marriage is legal Minnesota, same-sex couples may likely find that the Collaborative Divorce process provides the proper legal, financial and other professional supports needed for disentangling the various legal rights and responsibilities incident to ending their legal marriage.
While much of the focus of the new law legalizing same-sex marriage in Minnesota is focused on the upcoming weddings, the new law also paves the way for same-sex couples to legally divorce once the law goes into effect on August 1, 2013. This has a significant impact on Minnesota same-sex couples who were legally married in other states or countries and have since split up. Minnesota’s current law declared that same-sex marriages from other states were void and no rights were enforceable in Minnesota. For example, suppose you have Bill and Bob, a gay couple who legally married in Vermont in 2001, and then moved to Minnesota. Bill and Bob adopted a son, and Bob decided to stay at home to care for their son while Bill worked. After 12 years of marriage, they decide to end the marriage. Minnesota law treated this couple as if they had never been married, and they would not have been able to bring a proceeding for divorce. They could have brought custody and child support issues in a legal proceeding, but the law would have treated them like unmarried parents and would not have been able to handle property division or spousal maintenance. But now, the new law signed by Governor Dayton allows Minnesota family courts to recognize marriages performed in other states or countries. So same-sex couples will now have the ability to pursue a legal divorce just like an opposite-sex couple. Depending on the facts, Bob might have a claim for spousal maintenance, and the couple’s marital property accumulated during the 11 years of marriage would be subject to an equitable division by the family court. One thing the new Minnesota law cannot fix is the tax implications on property divisions in same-sex divorce. Because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”), the federal government does not recognize same-sex marriage for tax purposes. And that means same-sex couples who are dividing assets in a divorce, such as retirement accounts, are treated differently by the IRS than opposite-sex couples. All of that could change in the next couple months when the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of DOMA. With the new law and the impending decision by the Supreme Court, family lawyers are facing new territory. This makes the collaborative divorce process an attractive option for same-sex couples. The collaborative divorce process allows for a couple to honor their relationship and craft customized solutions to handle the changes to the law. Bill and Bob can have a respectful divorce, work together as effective co-parents, and remarry when they find new love in the future.