Same-Sex Couples and Divorce

Later this month, New York will join six other jurisdictions in permitting same-sex couples to marry. The other six jurisdictions are Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and the District of Columbia. When the marriages begin, same-sex couples from all over the United States will be able to marryin New York, because New York (like the other jurisdictions listed above) has no residency requirement for marriage.

As a recent article in the NYTimes describes, however, many of the estimated 80,000 married same-sex couples are finding it difficult to divorce if and when the need arises. As I explain in forthcoming article in the Boston University Law Review, this difficulty is “the result of the confluence of two factors.” First, many same-sex couples are unable to get divorced in their home states because they live in states with statutory and/or constitutional provisions stating that the jurisdiction will not recognize marriages between two people of the same sex. Second, they may be unable to divorce somewhere other than their home state because “it is widely understood that for a court to have the power to grant a divorce, one of the spouses must be domiciled in the forum[.]”

Being unable to get divorced is not simply a theoretical problem. During the time in which the parties remain married (despite their efforts to the contrary), the parties continue to accrue rights and responsibilities vis-à-vis each other. They may, for example, continue to accrue rights to marital property and obligations for debt incurred during the continued relationship.

My Article, Modernizing Divorce Jurisdiction: Same-Sex Couples and Minimum Contacts, considers why this anomalous jurisdictional rule arose in the first instance, why it has persisted over time, and whether it can be squared with contemporary principles of personal jurisdiction. Previously, divorce jurisdiction and the domicile rule were subjects of significant interest to the courts and to legal scholars. Likely to the surprise of many today, the Supreme Court decided a number of cases involving these issues in the middle of the last century. More recently, however, (with a few notable exceptions) there has been little contemporary judicial or scholarly engagement with the issue. Instead, the domicile rule is generally accepted today as an example of family law exceptionalism.

In my piece, I resist the myth of family law exceptionalism by critically considering whether the domicile rule can be reconciled with general principles of state court jurisdiction. Ultimately, as others including Rhonda Wasserman have done, I argue that the domicile rule should be abandoned. Instead, actions to terminate a marriage should be governed by the usual rules of personal jurisdiction. While this change alone would help many of the “wedlocked” same-sex couples (to borrow an apt phrase from Mary Pat Byrn and Morgan Holcomb), some may still be stranded. Accordingly, I conclude the Article by offering a set of normative proposals to ensure that all spouses have at least one forum in which to divorce.

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4 Responses

  1. SeniorD says:

    Sociological studies also suggest male homosexuals (to use the proper, non-gendered identifier) are far more likely to join for a single session of intercourse than remain together. While female homosexuals are more likely to remain as a couple, the males appear to just want to ‘hook up’ to use a modern concept. Given the shortened life span of homosexual males, one must wonder how such couples would deal with issues such a survivors insurance, joint property and the odd adulterous affair.

  2. Evan Foster says:

    It will obviously be difficult for same-sex couples to divorce in states which don’t recognise same-sex marriage.But there should not be a problem if the couple returns to the state which married them in the first place.

  3. Ken Rhodes says:

    On the other hand, a state that allows marriage without a residency requirement might still demand a significant period of residence for a divorce. That would tend to present serious difficulties for “return to the state which married them.”

  4. Courtney Joslin says:

    Thanks for your comments.

    If the usual rules of personal jurisdiction were applied to actions to terminate a marriage, then most couples likely would be able to return to the state of marriage for the divorce. This would be true because in most situations, a court in the state of marriage would have personal jurisdiction over both parties.

    But the usual rules of personal jurisdiction do not apply to actions to terminate the marriage. Instead, it is generally understood that one of the spouses must be domiciled in the state (that is physically present with intent to remain) for a court in that state to have jurisdiction to grant a divorce. No consideration is given to the connection between the defendant spouse, the action, and the forum. As I explain in my article: “Application of general jurisdiction principles would allow the parties to evade the divorce requirements of the [the parties’ home] state …. While such evasion was permitted in other types of civil actions, this result was simply unacceptable in the context of divorce[.]”

    Moreover, as Ken suggests, almost all states have enacted residency requirements for divorce, the most common length being six months. These statutory residency requirements were enacted in part to ensure that divorces decrees granted by courts in the state were properly granted and entitled to full faith and credit in other states.