New York’s Jurisdiction in Dissolving a Civil Union

July 23, 2011
Louis Sternberg

In the wake of New York’s new same-sex marriage law (The Marriage Equality Act), many may forget that some states that refuse to allow same-sex marriage do offer what is known as a “civil union.”  Civil unions, first offered in the United States by Vermont in 2000, are a legally-recognized relationship with generally all of the same rights and responsibilities of a marriage and entered into by same-sex partners.  The state legislatures that have enacted laws permitting civil unions have been very clear – although civil unions and marriages appear similar and share many attribute a civil union is not a marriage.

Currently, New Jersey, Illinois, Hawaii and Delaware either offer civil unions or will offer civil unions in the near future after recently-enacted statutes take effect.  Both Vermont and Connecticut previously allowed civil unions but no longer do so after subsequently passing laws enabling more expansive same-sex marriages.

Even before passage of New York’s same-sex marriage bill, New York recognized same-sex marriages so long as the marriage was legal where it was solemnized.  In the 2008 case of Martinez v. County of Monroe, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department ruled that state or local government must provide the same health care benefits to an employee’s same-sex spouse that it would provide to an employee’s opposite-sex spouse.  Implicit in this decision is the rule that the parties to a properly solemnized same-sex marriage are to be considered legally married under New York law.  As a result New York offered same-sex couples numerous rights, including the right to obtain a divorce.

This left open the question of how New York would handle the same-sex partners in a civil union who wish to dissolve that union.  The issue was that New York’s Domestic Relations Law states “[a]n action for divorce may be maintained by a husband or wife to procure a judgment divorcing the parties and dissolving the marriage” (emphasis added) and, as stated above, a civil union is not a marriage.  Although there are many similarities, a dissolution of a civil union is not the same thing as a same-sex divorce.

On July 21, 2011, in Dickerson v. Thompson,2011 NY Slip Op 06009, the Appellate Division, Third Department stated that New York State courts have the power to dissolve the civil union entered into by a lesbian couple in Vermont.  The court cited the trial court’s “general original jurisdiction in law and equity” which is “as broad as equity and justice require” and enables the courts to “grant complete relief in accordance with the equities of the case.”  The end result is that a party to a civil union, so long as it was properly solemnized, may seek dissolution of that union from the New York courts.

Currently, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont and the District of Columbia offer same-sex marriages.  New York’s Marriage Equality Act goes into effect tomorrow, July 24, 2011 and the state’s first same-sex marriage licenses will be issued.