Over the past ten years -- since Vermont civil unions became the first marriage-equivalent relationship for same-sex couples -- a patchwork of marriage equality, marriage equivalents, and marriage "lite" relationships, each of which provide some rights, has emerged in the United States. Gay marriage is now legal in 13 states and the District of Columbia. In addition, several states offer some lesser form of relationship recognition for same-sex couples, each with different rules.
Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois and New Jersey offer civil unions. Delaware, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut had civil unions, but with the legalization of same-sex marriage in each of these states, valid civil unions have been (or will be) merged or converted into marriages.
California, Oregon, Washington, Maine, Hawaii, D.C., Nevada, and Wisconsin offer domestic partnerships. Rights and benefits for couples in domestic partnerships vary from state to state.
In addition, some cities and counties offer local registration, with varying benefits, as do some employers.
For many couples who can't marry in their home state, going somewhere else to legalize their relationship looks like an attractive option -- and some couples have taken advantage of that option many times over. They registered as civil union partners in Colorado while visiting, and then, after returning home to Oregon, registered as domestic partners with their city government. Maybe they even flew out to California and got married there. And now they want to end their relationship. If this describes you, you're probably wondering what to do.
First, it's important that you do something. Once you've decided to break up, remaining legally registered or partnered, let alone married, means you continue to be financially and legally bound to your partner. Even if your union didn't have much legal significance at the time of registration, that can change. A Colorado civil union may not have been recognized as a marriage equivalent in Oregon a few years back when you signed the papers, but with the increasing level of partnership recognition and the ever-changing laws on same-sex marriage and partnerships, it now could subject you to joint liability or even a duty to pay spousal support.
Ending your multiple partnerships requires you to consider two questions.
What are the legal consequences of remaining registered or partnered? If one or more of your partnerships are on the local level -- like registering with your employer, or with the city or county -- those probably don't involve too many legal rights. You should still end the registration, just to make sure everything is clear, but if you forget, you're not likely to run into a lot of financial consequences. On the other hand, any marriage or registration on a state level must be legally terminated. Most of these registrations incorporate marital rights and duties, so if you don't terminate the relationship you could be on the hook for your ex-partner's credit card debts, could be ordered to share some of your savings with your ex, and could find yourself paying spousal support.
If either of you die before ending the registration, the survivor could make a claim against the other's estate. Remaining partnered also precludes marriage or registration with a new partner. For all these reasons, if you entered into a legal relationship in any of the states where that's available, you should take steps to sever the legal connection.
What are the procedures for ending each partnership? The local registrations are easy to end, as are registrations with your employer that you entered for insurance purposes. Each city or county will have a termination form, and you simply have to obtain it, fill it out, and send it in. Most local registries don't even require both partners to sign the form. (However, you should notify your former partner. If you don't have a current address just mail it to the last known address -- even if that is your own home. Just in case it ever comes up later, you'll be able to show that you made an effort.)
Terminating a state registration or marriage is much more complicated. In a few instances (such as a California domestic partnership if you own no real estate and have few assets) you can file a simple termination form, but not too many people qualify for that, and some states don't have that option at all.
Instead, most states require you to go through the same divorce process that opposite-sex couples use, involving the local family court. If you have more than one state registration, you should probably try to file for termination of the one you entered into first, but make sure that you ask the court to end the subsequent partnerships at the same time. Another option is to take legal steps to end the relationship that's legally the strongest -- in other words, if you are both married and registered as domestic partners, terminate the marriage and try to get the court to end the domestic partnership at the same time, as part of the same proceeding. You may want to talk to an attorney about the best way to go about ending your legal relationship.
Using the divorce courts is the point at which problems can arise. If you live in a state that doesn't recognize same-sex relationships and you went elsewhere to marry or register, your local court may refuse to grant a divorce. If you have multiple registrations from different states, the judge may be even more reluctant to end all of the relationships.
You might think you can just return to the state(s) where you registered and complete the legal process there -- but most states have residency requirements for divorce, some as long as a year. The exception is California, which allows anyone who registered there to get a divorce there regardless of where the couple lives. So if you're registered as California domestic partners and you live in another state, you should be able to terminate your domestic partnership simply by sending in paperwork to the California court. (The same rules don't apply to a California marriage, however.)
One way to get around this problem in states that will allow it is to file for an annulment on the grounds that your out-of-state registration is technically invalid. This isn't ideal, because from a political perspective it's never a good idea to denounce a same-sex relationship as not being legal, but you may find it necessary if you're really stuck. You can also try to find a different judge in your state, perhaps one who is more sympathetic to your situation. Another option, if the residency requirement in the state where you registered isn't too long, is to establish residency and get your divorce without actually moving there.
To do any of these things, you'll need to find a local divorce lawyer to help you. Your situation is unusual, and having an attorney may make the difference between failure and success. It's not necessarily going to be simple or cheap, but it's important that you make sure that your legal status -- in every state that's relevant -- reflects the reality you are actually living. One good place to find an LGBT lawyer is Nolo's Lawyer Directory (search under family law).
For a comprehensive, easy-to-understand guide to the past, present, and future of same-sex relationships in America, see Making It Legal, by Frederick Hertz and Emily Doskow (Nolo).
Updated: July 10, 2013