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Civil Unions and Same-Sex Marriage

Since October 21, 2013, it has been legal for same-sex couples to get married in New Jersey. Same-sex partners who wish marry in New Jersey may do so by following the same procedure as opposite-sex partners, e.g., securing a marriage license, making sure an appropriate official presides over the ceremony, etc. Now that same-sex marriages are legal in New Jersey, they will apparently be subject to the same divorce laws as opposite-sex marriages.

Many of the same-sex couples that will be entering into marriages may have already entered into a civil union. Before permitting same-sex marriages, the State of New Jersey allowed same-sex partners to enter into legally recognized associations called civil unions. Civil unions were intended to grant same-sex couples all of the same benefits, protections and responsibilities under the law as granted to spouses in a marriage. However, many civil union partners (in New Jersey and throughout the country) found that they were not afforded the same rights as spouses in a marriage. The unequal treatment of partners in a civil union as compared to those involved in a marriage served as the impetus towards the recognition of same-sex marriage.

If you have already entered into a civil union with your partner and you wish to enter into a marriage, there are several things to keep in mind. The first thing to be aware of is that civil unions do not automatically convert to marriages. A civil union couple will have to apply for and receive a marriage license, as noted above, and thereafter engage in a marriage ceremony in order to receive a marriage certificate. You will not have to dissolve your civil union in order to enter into marriage so long as you are marrying your current civil union partner. However, if you wish to marry someone other than your civil union partner, then you must have your civil union dissolved before you can enter into marriage with someone else.

One important thing to keep in mind is that a civil union will remain intact and will still be on file with the Office of Vital Statistics and Registry after you enter into marriage with your civil union partner. Therefore, if you ever decide to divorce your spouse, it will be extremely important to tell your divorce attorney that you entered into a marriage and civil union with your partner. If you do not advise your counsel of the civil union, only the marriage will be dissolved and you will remain the in the civil union with your partner. If the civil union remains intact, your divorced partner will be entitled to many rights and responsibilities that you may not wish him or her to retain, including but not limited to health and pension benefits, rights relating to inheritance and support obligations. Therefore, if a divorce becomes necessary in the future, please make sure your attorney files the paperwork necessary to dissolve the marriage and civil union.

Before the legalization of same-sex marriage in New Jersey, many same-sex partners living in New Jersey got married in another state or country that allowed same-sex marriages. Those marriages were only respected as civil unions in New Jersey before same-sex marriage was legalized here. However, just as with opposite-sex couples, a same-sex marriage entered in another state or country is now valid and recognized in this State and you will not need to enter into a separate New Jersey marriage. Any couple married outside of the State that wishes to renew their marriage commitment in New Jersey may do so by applying for and receiving a "remarriage" license and thereafter engaging in a remarriage ceremony.

If you are considering entering into a civil union or same-sex marriage, or if you have entered into one of these undertakings and wish to officially dissolve the relationship, it is important that you know your rights and your options. At Donahue, Hagan, Klein & Weisberg, LLC, we can guide you so that you make the best possible decision under your circumstances and the new same-sex marriage laws.