Same-sex couples in Washington State, whether they are in a marriage, domestic partnership, or a civil union must dissolve their relationship in the same way their opposite-sex married peers dissolve their marriages—with a divorce. In many ways the same rules apply, but there are special issues for gay divorce in Washington State.
Divorce Rates: Gay vs. Straight
Same-sex couples are divorcing at half the rate as straight couples. According to data published by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, in 2011 the divorce rate for same-sex couples was 1.1% per year, while the divorce rate for straight couples was 2% per year. (Note that the percent of couples that get divorced is eventually around 50 percent, but only one or two percent get divorced in a particular year.)
Issues Unique to Gay Divorce
Every divorce case is unique, but the following are some of the issues that often impact same-sex couples who wish to divorce.
Duration of the Relationship
Because marriage was not something most same-sex couples believed would be a reality a few years ago, let alone more than a decade ago, it can be difficult to figure out the start date of a relationship. Now that marriage has been expanded to same-sex couples, should their entire co-habitation period be considered part of the marriage?
For example, consider a same-sex couple who has been together for 25 years and got married once it was legal to do so. When their relationship ends, how long was their marriage for the purposes of alimony/maintenance? Will there be an impact on a just and equitable distribution of property? These are questions that have yet to be answered in Washington State.
The duration of a relationship is important because it influences what property will be on the table to distribute during a divorce. It also impacts spousal maintenance (alimony) and how long maintenance may be awarded.
Even though the Supreme Court found the Federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, issues persist for couples in Domestic Partnerships and Civil Unions. Many tax issues will persist for couples regarding property distribution and spousal maintenance (alimony). This includes:
- Property transfers — transferring or distributing property between same-sex spouses may be subject to federal income tax
- Alimony/spousal maintenance taxation — spousal maintenance/alimony is typically tax deductible by the payer, and taxable to the recipient; however, divorced same-sex couples are not able to deduct maintenance/alimony payments
In some instances, same-sex partners are not allowed access to their partner’s financial information or accounts, like a pension or a retirement account of the other partner. Division of retirement plans, in general, pose unique challenges for same-sex couples.
Same-sex couples experience problems when they marry or enter into a Civil Union or State Registered Domestic Partnership and either (1) never lived in the state or (2) they moved out of the state and their relationship ended.
Most states have some kind of residency requirement, often requiring one or both people to reside in the state for a month prior to be able to file for divorce. Washington’s residency requirement is simply that one spouse must be a resident of the state at the time the divorce petition is filed. Washington will dissolve same-sex marriages, domestic partnerships and civil unions from other states.
Many couples also may have gotten married or registered in multiple states or countries. When a couple is divorcing, they need to make sure to disclose all of these legal relationships to make sure that the court dissolves all of them. For example, if a couple fails to ask the court to end their Oregon State Registered Domestic Partnership when dissolving their Washington marriage, they will still be in a legal domestic partnership until it is dissolved.