It's a growing problem that will only grow more. Same-sex couples from around the country, who have travelled to places that allow them to marry, go home, later split up, and find out they cannot divorce. Family law practitioners specializing in LGBT families are working on creative solutions that allow those couples to go their separate ways without further legal entanglement.
When Illinois joined the ranks of states allowing civil unions this week, it also became a state in which couples can end their marriages, domestic partnerships, or civil unions from elsewhere. That's because Illinois now recognizes those relationships as Illinois civil unions, and therefore they can be dissolved in the same way that Illinois civil unions are dissolved. Chicago attorney Richard Wilson, who was instrumental in the drafting of the new law, reports that as couples flocked to the County Clerk's office on June 1 to get their civil union licenses, he headed off to Circuit Court Clerk's office to file several Petitions for Dissolution of Civil Union.
The difficulty couples face is a result of the fact that states don't require residency to marry (think destination weddings or Las Vegas wedding chapels), but they do require residency to divorce. So the couples who married in Massachusetts, DC, etc, cannot divorce if they live in a state that won't recognize their marriage, at least for purposes of getting divorced. Some couples think this means they can just go their separate ways, but it's not that simple. They are still married in states that recognize same-sex marriage. And if what they have is a civil union, say from Vermont which was the first place to allow them, they are still in a legal relationship in those states that recognize civil unions from other states, even if they don't recognize marriages.
And a couple's status in their home state can change. Here's what happened in Illinois. Before June 1, a couple in an Iowa marriage had no legal relationship in Illinois. Likewise a couple registered as domestic partners in DC. Those couples might have split up already without doing anything to adjust their legal status, thinking they had no status in Illinois. Well, as of June 1, 2011, both those couples are in civil unions in Illinois. Rights of inheritance and other potentially weighty matters turn on marital status, so those couples need to dissolve their relationships. Now they can...and they must.
Bottom line: Anyone who entered a formal status with a same-sex partner, in any state, needs to talk to a lawyer if that relationship ends.