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Pennsylvania Superior Court decision brings new rights to civil union couples

On December 28, 2016, the Pennsylvania Superior Court issued a unanimous opinion in Neyman v. Buckley holding that, “a Vermont civil union should be considered the legal equivalent of marriage for the purposes of dissolution under the Pennsylvania Divorce Code.”

The case…

Civil unions were created as a separate marital status for same-sex couples in a number of states across the county prior to same-sex marriage becoming available nationwide. Freyda Neyman and her former partner, Florence Buckley, were both Pennsylvania residents when they traveled to Vermont in July 2002 to enter into a civil union. At the time, same-sex marriage was not available anywhere in the United States.

In December 2002, Freyda and Florence separated and began living apart. Twelve years later, on June 2, 2014, after the Whitewood v. Wolf decision that brought marriage equality to Pennsylvania, Freyda filed a complaint in divorce/dissolution under Section 3301(c) of the Pennsylvania Divorce Code, seeking an uncontested dissolution of her civil union on the same basis as a divorce action. On February 4, 2015, Freyda filed the requisite paperwork with the court and requested that a final decree of divorce/dissolution of civil union be entered. On June 19, 2015, the trial court dismissed Freyda’s complaint and would not dissolve the civil union, stating that “the Family Court Division may only divorce parties from the ‘bonds of matrimony’”. Freyda’s uncontested appeal followed. 

The decision…

The Superior Court reviewed the historical context in which the Vermont Civil Union law was created and the changes in recognition of same-sex relationships both in Vermont, Pennsylvania and nationally since that time. The Superior Court noted as significant the intention of the Vermont legislature to provide a legal status to same-sex couples that provided “all the same benefits, protections and responsibilities under law…as are granted to spouses in a civil marriage.”

The court next turned to consider “whether the legal principle of comity mandates recognition of Vermont civil unions as the legal equivalent of marriage for purposes of dissolution pursuant to the Divorce Code in Pennsylvania.” Comity refers to the legal principle that one state will recognize the laws and judicial acts of another state out of deference, mutuality and respect. In Neyman, the court concluded that “the legal properties of a Vermont civil union weigh in favor of recognizing such unions as the legal equivalent of marriage for purposes of dissolution under the Divorce Code.” The court reasoned that “declining to acknowledge the parties’ civil union as the equivalent of marriage would essentially penalize the parties simply for their same-sex status because the Vermont civil union statute explicitly granted same-sex couples equivalent rights to those only available to opposite-sex couples through marriage at that time.”

The Superior Court concluded that “a Vermont civil union should be considered the legal equivalent of marriage for the purposes of dissolution” and that “[p]recluding family court jurisdiction simply due to the word ‘marriage’ and ‘divorce’ in Pennsylvania jurisdictional authority elevates mere semantics over the fundamental domestic character of the relationship at issue.”

Impact of the decision…

Neyman sets the important precedent that the dissolution of civil unions may proceed through Pennsylvania family courts. Individuals who have long been separated but unable to dissolve their civil union may now dissolve this legal status. The family court not only has the authority to dissolve civil unions but also has the authority to address issues incident to the dissolution of a Vermont civil union, such as equitable distribution and support. This is especially important where there is economic disparity between civil union partners. A dependent partner may now seek alimony and equitable distribution of assets and debts acquired during the civil unions.

While the decision in Neyman specifically addressed Vermont civil unions, civil unions from other jurisdictions, such as neighboring New Jersey, should also be recognized in Pennsylvania so long as the jurisdiction issuing the civil union gave parties to the civil unions same rights as marriage. The decision in Neyman may also have consequences for parties to domestic partnerships where the rights and benefits of the domestic partnership in the state that issued the domestic partnership are tantamount to marriage.

It would also follow from the decision in Neyman that, for parties who have both a civil union and a marriage with each other, Pennsylvania courts will looks to the earlier civil union date for determining the coverture period of the marriage. This may be important in equitable distribution and for purposes of alimony.

While civil unions can now be dissolved in Pennsylvania, there are some important distinctions between marriages and civil unions of which parties and attorneys should be aware. Civil unions are not recognized by the Internal Revenue Service. This may impact the amount of alimony awarded because alimony awarded between parties to a marriage is taxable to the payee and deductible to the payor. Parties to a civil union may also encounter special issues in the distribution of retirement assets as Qualified Domestic Relations Orders, orders that allow the transfer of retirement assets pursuant to divorce without payment of taxes at the time of transfer, as this preferential tax treatment is unavailable to parties to a civil union. 

It is likely that Neyman will also impact estate planning and estate administration. Parties to a civil union should now be treated as spouses for purposes of intestacy and payment of Pennsylvania inheritance taxes.

Individuals who ended their relationship with a civil union partner but did not dissolve that status and subsequently entered into a marriage with another individual may find the validity of their marriage in question.

When dissolving a civil union or addressing the legal ramifications of a civil union and other similar statuses such as domestic partnerships, it is important to work with an attorney who is familiar with unique legal issues that may arise for same-sex couples.