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Massachusetts court rules Vermont ‘civil union’ equal to marriage in divorce proceeding

Thursday, July 26, 2012
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BOSTON — The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court — the state’s highest appellate court — ruling in a case regarding divorce proceedings, said that a civil union in Vermont is “the equivalent of marriage in the Commonwealth.”

The case involved two men whom had been married in Massachusetts in 2005, but in the divorce discovery proceedings, Richard Elia discovered that his spouse, Todd J. Elia-Warnken, had previously entered into a civil union in Vermont in 2003, and that the union had never been dissolved.

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Roderick Ireland stated that (a person) who is in a civil union in another state must get that union dissolved before getting married to another person in Massachusetts.

The court recognized that the civil union in Vermont was “the equivalent of marriage in the Commonwealth,” and that the union must be dissolved or the person would be committing polygamy by being married to two people at the same time.

“Under Massachusetts law, polygamy is against public policy, and there is no good faith exception. The plaintiff has a spouse in Vermont; therefore, his marriage to the defendant was void ab initio [from the beginning],” the court ruled.

The court also said that recognizing Vermont civil unions would “avoid the uncertainty and chaos that otherwise would result.”

“It has always been the law of the Commonwealth that a person may have only one spouse at a time, and this was simply a matter of consistently applying long established principles to the legal relationships of same-sex couples,” said Ben Klein, senior staff attorney at Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, which represented Elia.

“We’re pleased that the SJC decided that spouses in civil unions are bound by the same rules as spouses in a marriage when it comes to dissolving legal relationships before entering into a new legal relationship with a different person,” Klein said in a statement.

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