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December 30, 2016

Court: Same-sex couple's Vermont civil union can be divorced in Pennsylvania

A Pennsylvania Superior Court has ruled that a same-sex couple's civil union in Vermont can be divorced in Pennsylvania.

The Wednesday opinion from Judge James J. Fitzgerald III said that the civil union should be recognized as the equivalent of marriage in Pennsylvania, overturning a decision out of Philadelphia County Family Court.

In 2002, Freyda Neyman and Florence Buckley entered into a civil union in Vermont, which was the first state to adopt civil unions for gay couples in 2000.

In 2014, the two began seeking a divorce in Pennsylvania, where both had been residing for more than six months.

The Philadelphia trial court denied their request in 2015, ruling that the civil union did not fall under the "bonds of matrimony" and, therefore, did not fall within Philadelphia County's jurisdiction.

Fitzgerald wrote in the Superior Court's reversal that precluding jurisdiction because of the use of the words "marriage" and "divorce" equated to "mere semantics over the fundamental domestic character of the relationship at issue."

"The family court division possesses the expertise and the unique toolbox available, via the Pennsylvania Divorce Code, necessary to resolve the intimate and complex domestic matters likely to be at issue incident to the dissolution of a Vermont civil union, such as equitable distribution, child custody, and support," Fitzgerald wrote.

Fitzgerald noted that domestic benefits and obligations related to civil unions in Vermont are relegated to the state's family courts, so those issues could be handled by Pennsylvania's family courts.

Same-sex marriage was legalized in Pennsylvania in May 2014 and nationwide in June 2015. Fitzgerald also wrote that dismissing the couple's request for a divorce would essentially penalize them for their same-sex status, as their civil union gave them rights only available to opposite-sex couples at the time.