Is Ending a Civil Union the Same as Divorce?

Civil unions represent a legal status in which two people are conferred many of the same rights and benefits as marriage does. Traditionally, civil unions were used by same-sex couples who were legally barred from marrying and who were seeking the same legal protections that marriage offers to heterosexual couples.

Civil unions were administered by individual states and were only guaranteed those rights in the states where they were administered. They did not have federal or international protections and were not recognized in the state of Pennsylvania (whether they were between same-sex couples or heterosexual couples). However, after the passage of the marriage equality laws, the Pennsylvania state Superior Court ruled that civil unions were entitled to the same benefits and protections as are provided to married couples, and those rights include the right to dissolve the union through divorce. This decision followed the appeal of a lower court ruling that refused to grant the dissolution of an uncontested Vermont civil union.

Upon hearing the case in 2016, the Superior Court ruled that the only significant difference between the out-of-state civil union and any other marriage was “sexual orientation and semantics” and ruled that in the interest of “comity” with other states, the state of Pennsylvania needed to recognize the civil union as the “legal equivalent of marriage for the purpose of dissolution.”

What this means from a real-world standpoint is that any couple who has been united under a civil union in a state outside of Pennsylvania (which does not recognize or perform civil unions) can go through the same divorce process in the state as is true of couples who are married in the state. They need to meet the same requirements of being residents of the county in which they file the divorce complaint and need to go through the same process of equitable distribution, spousal support, child custody, and child support as appropriate to their individual situation.

If you are currently in a civil union and you would like information on the process of divorce in the state of Pennsylvania, we can help. Contact our office today to set up an appointment to discuss the specifics of your situation.