by Denise Diskin -
Special to the SGN
It's been a little more than a year since we all went through the whirlwind of Washington's successful Referendum 74 campaign, which resulted in Washington's same-sex GLBT couples being able to get happily, legally married on December 9, 2012. For many, it felt like the wave of positive change toward marriage equality was finally cresting here in Washington. With the passage of that law, hundreds of couples were able to get married, joining the thousands of couples who had already registered with the state as domestic partners.
Now, the final part of that law is taking effect: Starting June 30, 2014, most couples who are domestic partners but who have not yet married will have their partnership automatically converted to a marriage by the state. Couples (provided both are under the age of 62) who registered as domestic partners with the state of Washington's Secretary of State's office must now decide whether they want to become married or dissolve their domestic partnership.
As a preliminary matter, when I refer to same-sex couples in this article, I mean couples that have the same legal gender at the time they registered as domestic partners. If one person is Transgender, their legal gender (meaning the gender reported on their driver's license, Social Security card, and other legal documents) at the time of the domestic partnership or marriage is what the state considers. None of these legal changes affect people who were married as an opposite-sex couple, but became a same-sex couple after their marriage because of one person's legal gender change.
Prior to the 2012 election, the laws governing same-sex relationships' legal status changed several times. For many years, same-sex couples had no legal relationship status whatsoever. Then, a patchwork of city, county and state governments around the country began to allow couples to register as domestic partners - but each city, county, and state defined that relationship a little differently, and afforded different benefits and responsibilities to those relationships. Then, in 2009, Washington state implemented the 'Everything But Marriage' law, which allowed same-sex couples to register as domestic partners. By filling out a short form, a couple could be placed on a state registry, and their relationship then was treated as legally identical to a marriage, complete with Washington's definition of shared or 'community' property and shared debts. What many couples did not realize when they registered was that in order to legally end that relationship and the sharing of property that came with it, they are required to complete a legal divorce proceeding, or 'dissolution.'
In the meantime, many other states and countries had taken similar actions, and couples from all over the country traveled to those places to celebrate and have their relationships legally recognized. As a result, for example, a couple could have a marriage issued by the Canadian government, California, and New York, a civil union issued by Massachusetts, and a domestic partnership issued by Washington state. Washington has legally recognized same-sex relationships from other states and countries in some form for many years. Depending on the type of legal recognition, some of those couples are now considered married or domestic partners in Washington state, though they will not be affected by the June 30 auto-conversion.
Any domestic partnership registered with Washington state's Secretary of State's office, however, will automatically convert to a marriage on June 30, 2014 (unless one partner is 62 or older). For many couples, that will be a welcome development, and will afford them many, if not all, of the federal benefits traditionally afforded to opposite-sex married couples. Couples who do not want to have their partnership converted to a marriage will need to start the legal process of dissolving their domestic partnership prior to June 30, 2014.
Since the Supreme Court ruling in June 2013 striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the federal government has moved forward in recognizing the marriages of same-sex couples in areas such as federal taxes, immigration, and eligibility for housing and social welfare programs. And those programs are expanding more and more - on February 10, Attorney General Eric Holder instructed the Department of Justice to recognize marriage equality in programs administered by the Department of Justice (DOJ), such as the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund and Public Safety Officers' Benefits Programs, the rules governing bankruptcy proceedings, federal prison policies with respect to areas like visitation and next-of-kin notifications, and rules regarding the possession or sale of licensed firearms and explosives.
What does it mean to be married?
For many couples, marriage is a public commitment linking one person to another in all aspects of their lives. Legally, married people share the benefits of each person's income and assets as well as the responsibility for each person's debts - in other words, they operate as a team, contributing to one household, the marital 'community.' When couples remain married, the fact that they share community assets and debts does not have much effect on the couple's everyday life. This is especially true now that married same-sex couples may now file joint tax returns.
But when couples decide to end their relationship, the contributions made by each person to the shared household become very important.
Community property means that throughout the marriage or domestic partnership, both people are entitled to a share of one another's assets and income. It also means that both people are responsible for a share of one another's debts. If, for example, one person earned significantly more than the other, both people may be entitled to the same amount of the couple's savings, even if it was kept in separate accounts. Or, if one person accumulated a large amount of credit card debt, both people may be responsible for paying it off, even if only one person's name is on the credit card.
If your relationship is ending, you should consult with an attorney experienced in same-sex dissolutions to ensure your assets are divided fairly.
Will a domestic partnership be converted to a marriage if it was administered by a city or county?
No. While some cities and counties have historically allowed same-sex couples various kinds of relationship recognition, the legal effect of that recognition is limited to that city or county and in some cases may simply be ceremonial.
Also, historically the power to recognize marriage as a legal arrangement has been defined by state law. States get to make their own rules about who is allowed to get married - which is one reason that same-sex couples must fight state by state to have their relationships recognized.
The federal government may choose to give benefits to married couples, but now that Section 3 of DOMA is no longer in effect, it must recognize any married couple. So same-sex couples who were married in a state that either permits same-sex couples to marry or recognizes same-sex marriages performed by another state now have a federally-recognized marriage. It's not yet clear how the marriages of same-sex couples who live in states that do not recognize those marriages will be recognized federally - couples in those states should consult with an attorney in the state where they live.
My partner and I got a domestic partnership instead of a marriage because I have spousal benefits from a previous relationship. Do we have to get a dissolution so that I can keep my benefits?
Only if both you and your partner are under the age of 62. The state will not automatically convert state-registered domestic partnerships to marriages where at least one partner is 62 or older.
Starting June 30, 2014, state-registered domestic partnerships will only be available for couples in which at least one partner is 62 or older; all other couples must get married if they want legal recognition of their relationship.
I am no longer in a relationship with my registered domestic partner? What do I do?
You must file a petition for dissolution in a county court - this is what people mean when they say they are 'filing for divorce' in Washington. It is a good idea to file that petition before your registered domestic partnership is converted to a marriage on June 30, 2014, because once your domestic partnership is a marriage, it will be recognized by the federal government, and it will impact your obligations for how you file your taxes and the federal benefits you may be entitled to.
In your petition for dissolution, you should explain your situation to the court and ask the court to divide up your assets and debts. If you and your registered domestic partner have not been in a relationship for a long time and do not live together, you can tell the court that you do not believe your former partner should be entitled to share your assets or debts for the time you were not living together.
You will have to let your former partner know you filed the petition, which can be complicated if you and your former partner are no longer in contact. However, it is important that you dissolve the registered domestic partnership, because even if you are no longer in contact, you can in some cases be held liable for your former partner's debts. Also, you cannot become registered domestic partners or get married to anyone else until your existing partnership is resolved.
This is a lot of information! How do I get more help?
There are several great resources here in King County to help people figure out their individual needs in this changing legal landscape. The QLaw Foundation GLBT Legal Clinic (www.q-law.org/legalclinic) provides free half-hour consultations with a volunteer attorney who can advise you on your individual legal situation and refer you to an attorney for ongoing representation if you need it. The QLaw Association (www.q-law.org) and the Greater Seattle Business Association (www.thegsba.com) have directories of LGBTQ-friendly attorneys. And Washington Law Help (www.washingtonlawhelp.org) has a collection of several do-it-yourself packets of the legal forms you need if you want to dissolve your registered domestic partnership, divide up your income, or determine child custody. While all the recent legal changes are full of joy and new challenges, legal help is available and can be affordable, too.
Denise Diskin is an attorney practicing employment discrimination, civil rights, and family law at Teller & Associates, PLLC, and is the former committee chair of the QLaw Foundation GLBT Legal Clinic.
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