The day marriage equality came to Minnesota was also the day divorce equality arrived.
While Aug. 1 was touted in Minnesota as the day marriage equality came to the state, it also marked the date divorce equality arrived.
Dawn Tuckner, who was married to her same-sex partner in Canada nine years ago, was one of the many people celebrating when Minnesota legislators voted to legalize same-sex marriage, a law that went into effect Aug. 1. Yet Tuckner wasn’t celebrating the opportunity to be married — she was celebrating the opportunity to divorce.
The relationship ended three years ago, yet Tuckner and and her former partner have been stuck in a state of limbo, unable to legally divorce.
While they initially thought they could once again retreat to Canada to undo those vows, they learned they would have to live in the country before being legally allowed to dissolve the marriage.
“It’s just like Vegas, you go to the courthouse, you get a certificate, you go and get married… boom, done,” Dawn Tuckner, a Minnesota resident who was the first to file for a same-sex divorce in the state, told Fox 9 News.
Tuckner isn’t the only American to know what it’s like to celebrate same-sex legalization from the perspective of relationship freedom. Couples around the country who traveled to different states or countries to pursue legal marriage have found they’re unable to file for divorce in states where same-sex marriage is not recognized.
To make her situation even more complicated, she and her now-ex wife have a son together. Tuckner gave birth to the child through artificial insemination — and her former wife filed for adoption at that time, as she was not seen as a guardian at the time without doing so.
Now, in addition to divorce, Tuckner is navigating the legal maze of obtaining legal guardianship over her son and changing her last name.
“We grew apart, just like any straight couple,” Tuckner told Fox 9 News of her past relationship. “Just like any couple you know that have children, they do change things in a relationship. I just haven’t been able to do anything about it. I haven’t been able to move on with my life.”
Rhode Island’s legalization of same-sex marriage also took effect Aug. 1, ushering in a new wave of married couples and ex-couples seeking reprieve from past marriages. A woman identified as Melanie told Rhode Island’s WPRI Eyewitness News that the new law allowed her to experience a freedom she wasn’t able to before.
“I did consider moving but I decided against it,” she told the station. “It was too much to deal with.”
The legality of divorce
Rhode Island’s court system has dealt with same-sex marriage divorce before, years before the state legislature’s 2013 vote for legalization.
In 2006, a Rhode Island couple filed for divorce after making the trip in 2004 to marry in Massachusetts, where the state was allowing same-sex couples from around the country to do so. It was the first state to legalize marriage, receiving a lot of attention and couples looking to tie the knot.
The couple, Margaret Chamber and Cassandra Orniston, exchanged vows in the state just before then-Governor Mitt Romney halted travelers from marrying in Massachusetts. By 2006, 8,000 same-sex couples had married in the state, according to the LA Times.
Yet two years later, the couple attempted to absolve their union in the Rhode Island court system, just like any other married couple.
Their case presented the courts with a unique question: Can a couple not recognized as married be recognized as divorced? The court wasn’t sure, and it referred the case to the Supreme Court, which decided that same-sex divorces could not be issued.
“There’s no indication that we can either hear same-sex marriages or same-sex divorces,” Judge Jeremiah S. Jeremiah Jr. said in the hearing, according to the LA Times.
Before that, the court heard arguments from the sides of both parties seeking divorce — the arguments were largely the same.
The attorney acting on behalf of Chamber claimed Rhode Island recognizes heterosexual marriages from other states, arguing the same should apply in the case of his client.
Orniston’s attorney argued that the case presented to the court was not one that would determine the definition of marriage, yet would allow those traveling from elsewhere to legally retrieve from that contract.
“We are not asking the state of Rhode Island to recognize same-sex marriage,” Nancy Palmisciano, Orniston’s attorney argued, according to the LA Times. “We are asking the state to recognize same-sex divorce. I’m not asking you to issue a marriage license here. We passed that when my client and her spouse received a valid license, according to the laws of the state of Massachusetts.”
Is it more difficult to get a same-sex divorce?
For same-sex couples who legally wed in California, the path toward divorce is one that is filled with legal loopholes and obstacles.
Even after the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, essentially once again allowing recognition of same-sex marriage, couples attempting to divorce ran into a few problems.
Jason Dottley, a California actor who filed for divorce from his husband in April 2012, told the TODAY Show he and his former partner expected the process to go as smoothly as possible, considering both were in agreement on the matter.
But it didn’t — far from it.
“The lawyer I hired really couldn’t offer much help,” he told the TODAY Show. “His advice was basically, you can either keep plugging away or you can pay me to plug away, but until the courts figure out what they’re doing, I can’t speed this along for you any more than you can.”
The reason it’s so costly and difficult? It’s new territory, according to Susan Sommer of Lambda Legal, a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender advocacy group.
“Gay and lesbian couples have had to be pioneers,” she told the TODAY Show. “Until things get familiar, even in states like New York, where same-sex couples can marry, initially there will be a sense of, ‘How do we do this?”
Even when divorces are granted in states where same-sex marriage is allowed, there are new sets of issues gay and lesbian people face — many of whom lived together in committed relationships long before they were allowed to legally marry.
“A same-sex couple may have only been married for so many years, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t married in their hearts for much longer — and already co-mingled their assets or bought property together,” Carolyn Statenberg, a New York attorney, told the TODAY Show.
Yet in New York, for example, divorce proceedings only split assets from the time a couple was married, an issue same-sex couples arguably don’t experience.
For some, that means things can get costly, especially in terms of legal fees. Margaret Wenig of New York got divorced in New York in 2013. She married her ex-wife in 2008, yet they were registered domestic partners dating back to 1996.
According to Wenig, the pricetag of her divorce sits at around $120,000. Statenberg estimates that average New York divorces among same-sex couples typically cost $10,000. When it comes to the frequency of divorce, hetersexual couples have same-sex couples beat. According to a report published by the Williams Institute of Law at UCLA, same-sex couples dissolve — or divorce — less than those in heterosexual couples.
“A limited number of states have tracked dissolutions of legal relationships of same-sex couples,” the report states. “Those data reveal that the percentage of same-sex couples dissolving their relationships is slightly lower on average than the percentage of married different-sex who divorce.”