Divorce laws make ‘uncoupling’ difficult for many in same-sex marriages



NEW YORK — Cori Jo Long, 31, and Brooke Powell, 30, did everything right before they married. They fell in love slowly, based on years of friendship stretching back to high school. They planned their nuptials carefully for about a year, choosing to travel from Texas to New Hampshire in 2010 as same-sex marriage spread.

Sadly, bad times set in three years later, but uncoupling has proven far more difficult. The two women are now trapped in a state of bitter, desperate “wedlock,” an emerging antithesis to same-sex marriage victories for those who want to divorce but can’t find a way around legal snarls that prevent it.

Texas doesn’t recognize the marriage of Long and Powell, and a judge there ruled recently he had no jurisdiction to either void the union or formally grant a divorce.

“It’s hard to feel like you don’t exist, like you’re invisible under the law,” Powell said by phone from Fort Worth, Texas.

Added Long: “It’s a limbo. It’s waiting and seeing. That’s all I can do.”

The wait may be a long one as they pursue appeals. Thankfully, the two aren’t fighting over kids, an area particularly difficult in matters of same-sex divorce for couples who traveled to a state granting the freedom to marry from a state that doesn’t.

Same-sex marriage is allowed in 19 states and the District of Columbia, but laws governing divorce have not kept pace, creating a contradictory patchwork that could take years to resolve.

“It’s a mess, the inability to get divorced,” said Beth Littrell, a senior attorney for the civil rights group Lambda Legal‘s Southern regional office in Atlanta.

It’s difficult to calculate precisely how many same-sex couples have divorced, but watchdogs like Littrell are keeping a close eye on the way judges and state legislatures are responding to wedlock and other divorce-related problems.

“I get hundreds of calls,” New York divorce attorney David Centeno said. “They don’t realize that they’re entering into a marriage that’s kind of like jail. You can’t get out of it unless you move here to New York and you meet the residency requirements. It’s heartbreaking. There needs to be some sort of national reform.”

Divorce procedure is generally inconsistent from state to state, but the process has become more streamlined for same-sex couples who travel to a marriage recognition state to tie the knot. If they’re seeking an uncontested divorce, California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota and Vermont — along with the District of Columbia — have loosened residency requirements, though they won’t address child custody, visitation, support or other issues related to uncoupling.

In Iowa and 12 other marriage-granting states, however, residency must be established to divorce, taking anywhere from six months to a year or more.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of wedlock is settling child custody battles, said Littrell and others. Fights over kids are usually decided in heterosexual divorces in the state where kids live, said Cathy Sakimura, family law director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco.

For same-sex couples in states where marriage or civil unions aren’t recognized…

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