New York Magazine’s cover story this week is on “Divorce Equality — When Gay Marriage Ends.” In a piece titled, “From ‘I Do’ to ‘I’m Done,’” Jesse Green writes:
With newfound rights, newfound fears. The peculiar mechanics—and heartbreak—of gay divorce.
“From ‘I do’ to ‘I’m done’ is a well-traveled road—for straight couples,” Green notes. “When their legal marriages are over, they pretty much know they will need a legal divorce. But for gay couples, the promise of marriage is still so new and incomplete that the idea of matrimonial courts, equitable settlements, and all the rest barely registers. How do you process the undoing of a bond that until a moment ago in history you were not allowed to form?”
It’s not a subject that marriage-equality groups tend to trumpet on their websites, but gay couples are at the start of a divorce boom. One reason is obvious: More couples are eligible. According to a report by UCLA’s Williams Institute, nearly 50,000 of the approximately 640,000 gay couples in the U.S. in 2011 were married. (Another 100,000 were in other kinds of legal relationships, such as domestic partnerships.) The marriage rate, in states that allowed it, was quickly rising toward that of heterosexual couples: In Massachusetts as of that year, 68 percent of gay couples were married, compared with 91 percent of heterosexual couples. Another reason for the coming boom is that while first-wave gay marriages have proved more durable than straight ones (according to the Williams Institute, about one percent of gay marriages were dissolving each year, compared with 2 percent for different-sex couples), that’s not expected to last. Most lawyers I spoke to assume that the gap will soon vanish, once the backlog of long-term and presumably more stable gay couples have married, leaving the field to the young and impulsive.
For gay couples, though, the Byzantine chaos of current law can yield grotesque results. The problems arise from two main sources: differences among the states in their laws concerning gay relationships, and differences between the states and the federal government, thanks to the Defense of Marriage Act, in their treatment of taxes, pensions, inheritance, and other transfers that may figure in settlements. You needn’t be a “marriage tourist”—one of the many couples who trekked from jurisdiction to jurisdiction to wed repeatedly as marriage became legal in each—to get caught in the flypaper.
For years we’ve argued for the rights and responsibilities that marriage brings. Sadly, divorce can be one of them.
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