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Skeletons in the Closet: Can a Civil Union or Registered Domestic Partnership Come Back to Haunt You?

Civil unions and domestic partnerships are quasi-marital statuses created by some states prior to marriage equality. Although Pennsylvania never offered theses legal statuses, many same-sex couples in Pennsylvania traveled to other states to obtain civil unions or domestic partnerships because they were unable to legally marry.

What many folks do not understand is that these relationship statuses can have very real – and very scary – legal consequences if they are not properly terminated or dissolved.  

Individuals who end their relationship with a civil union partner but do not dissolve that status and subsequently enter into a marriage with someone else may find the validity of their marriage in question. Additionally, the legal ramifications of entering into a marriage where a civil union or domestic partnership still exists with a different person could create competing claims for benefits or competing claims against your estate.

There could also be challenges for individuals who wish to create a family with a new partner. An adoption agency may be unwilling to place a child for adoption in a home where one party is still in a civil union with a former partner.

The good news is that it is now possible to terminate or dissolve these relationship statuses in Pennsylvania courts. These cases can proceed through the family court system in the same manner as a divorce. And the family court can address related issues as well, such as equitable distribution and support. In fact, Pennsylvania recently amended its court rules, which now state that a “divorce,” is defined as “divorce from the bonds of matrimony or dissolution of a civil union.” Philadelphia family court has also dissolved registered domestic partnerships from California and Oregon under the same rules governing divorces.

If you entered into a civil union or domestic partnership and are no longer in a relationship with that person, you should dissolve it through the court. And if you entered a marriage and a civil union or domestic partnership with the same person and are now divorcing, both legal statuses must be dissolved to terminate all legal relationships between the former partners. Getting a divorce order that only dissolves the marriage is not enough; it must also include the dissolution of the prior civil union or domestic partnership.

If you would like more information about dissolving civil unions in Pennsylvania, please contact Jerner & Palmer, P.C.