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Courts Have Authority To Dissolve Civil Unions Under Pennsylvania Divorce Code

January 11, 2017

Prior to the December, 2016 Neyman vs. Buckley decision, couples who were joined in civil unions had difficulty dissolving their union in Pennsylvania. When Neyman filed a divorce complaint to dissolve her civil union in Pennsylvania, the court dismissed the complaint. The court relied on the Rule that a family court division may only divorce parties from “bonds of matrimony.” The trial court directed Neyman to file a complaint in the “civil trial division” under the equity laws, not the divorce code. Neyman appealed.

The Pennsylvania appellate court agreed with Neyman and reversed the trial court.   The appellate court noted while the landmark Supreme Court opinion in Obergefell vs. Hodges held that a state’s refusal to recognize same sex marriages was unconstitutional, the Obergefell opinion did not resolve all questions regarding civil unions and divorce.

To resolve this issue, Pennsylvania Court looked to the state where Neyman and Buckley received their civil union, Vermont, and the legal concept of “comity.”   The law of Vermont provides that the law of divorce and property division are applicable to a civil union. Under comity, Pennsylvania will give effect to the laws of another state “out of deference and mutual respect.” Such deference and mutual respect was appropriate regarding the Vermont law that civil unions may be dissolved under the laws of divorce.    In the rationale, the court stated that Pennsylvania residents should not have to travel to Vermont to dissolve their civil union under Vermont law.

The holding in Neyman vs. Buckley, opened the door for civil unions to be dissolved under the Pennsylvania divorce code, just like marriages.   This opinion is likely part of many opinions to come that will resolve the rights of same sex couples under Pennsylvania law.