Civil Unions Equivalent to Marriage

Hi there,Robin Lynch Nardone of Burns & Levinson

Yesterday the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided to treat Civil Unions like marriage.  My colleague, Robin Lynch Nardone has some thoughts on this.



A civil union may not be the same as a marriage, but in the eyes of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, it is.  The SJC has ruled that a Vermont civil union is the equivalent of a marriage in Massachusetts.

The SJC was asked to rule on the question of whether or not a civil union must be dissolved before a party to that civil union can enter into a valid marriage in Massachusetts.  Todd Warnken entered into a civil union in Vermont in 2003 and then entered into a marriage with Richard Elia in Massachusetts in 2005.  Mr. Warnken had not taken any steps to legally end his civil union before marrying Mr. Elia in Massachusetts.  When Mr. Warnken filed for divorce in Massachusetts in 2009, Mr. Elia, having learned of the civil union, moved to dismiss the complaint for divorce on the grounds that the marriage was void under Massachusetts law.  In Massachusetts, polygamy (having more than one spouse at the same time) is illegal.  A marriage is not valid if one of the spouses is already married to someone else.  Mr. Elia argued that because Mr. Warnken had not terminated his civil union, the marriage was void as a matter of law.

In reasoning that Mr. Elia was correct — that the marriage was void — the SJC looked to the definition of marriage in Massachusetts.  Massachusetts defines marriage as “the voluntary union of two persons as spouses, to the exclusion of all others.”  This, the Court found, is the same relationship that is established by a civil union in Vermont, particularly in light of the fact that Vermont had established the intent of civil unions to be “to create legal equality between relationships based on civil unions and those based on marriage.”  Further, the fact that Vermont amended its laws in 2009 to repeal portions of the civil union laws and to allow for same sex marriage did not persuade the SJC that a civil union is not the equivalent of a marriage.  The rights and obligations of people in civil unions is functionally identical to those of married people.

The Court pointed out that another compelling reason to recognize a civil union as akin to a marriage is that to do otherwise would create uncertainty and chaos.  If the Court did not recognize the civil union, Mr. Warnken would have two legal relationships to two different men, each of whom could expect the same obligations from Mr. Warnken — such as spousal support, inheritance rights and health insurance.

Perhaps the most compelling reason of all for the Court’s decision was the conclusion that “refusing to recognize a civil union would be inconsistent with the core legal and public policy concerns articulated in Goodridge… protection and furtherance of the rights of same-sex couples.”

The Court’s conclusion that a Vermont civil union must be dissolved before a party to that civil union can enter into a marriage in Massachusetts was a logical one and should be applauded.

You can read the entire decision in Todd Elia-Warnken v. Richard Elia here.