Massachusetts high court says it recognizes Vermont civil unions as marriages

The state’s highest court says a person who is in a civil union in Vermont must get that union dissolved before he or she can get married to someone else in Massachusetts.

The Supreme Judicial Court said it recognized the civil union in Vermont as “the equivalent of marriage in the Commonwealth.” Because of that, the court said, the union must be dissolved first or the person would be committing polygamy by being married to two people at the same time.

The court ruled in a case in which two men who were married in Massachusetts in 2005 were in divorce proceedings. One of the men found out during the proceedings that his husband had entered into a civil union in Vermont in 2003 and that union had never been dissolved.

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The man moved to have the divorce case dismissed on the grounds that the Massachusetts marriage was void because of his husband’s Vermont civil union. A Probate and Family Court judge asked for a ruling on whether the marriage was void.

The Supreme Judical Court said that since it considered the Vermont union a marriage, the Massachusetts marriage was invalid because it would be considered illegal polygamy.

“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 said in a ruling written by Chief Justice Roderick Ireland.

The spouse who entered into both the civil union and the marriage, for his part, pointed to Vermont’s repeal in 2009 of portions of its 2000 civil union laws and its amendment of marriage laws to allow same-sex couples to marry. Because that amendment did not convert existing civil unions automatically into marriages, civil unions were different from marriages and not equal to marriages, even in Vermont, the spouse argued.

The court said “we are not persuaded” by that argument.

The court also said that recognizing Vermont civil unions would “avoid the uncertainty and chaos that otherwise would result. ... Here if we do not recognize the plaintiff’s civil union [as a marriage and void the Massachusetts marriage], he would have two legal spouses, each of whom could expect virtually the same obligations from him, such as spousal or child support, inheritance, and healthcare coverage.”

“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 & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, which represented Richard A. Elia, who found out his “husband,” Todd J. Elia-Warnken, was already part of a civil union in Vermont.

“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.

“It was a fascinating case and, obviously, we were disappointed with the court’s decision, but we certainly understood it,” said Nicholas J. Plante, the Worcester attorney who represented Elia-Warnken.

The unanimous decision was written by Chief Justice Roderick Ireland.

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