by Michael Sarko
– The Capitol Hill Times –
Today is a historic day in the history of Washington State and indeed the entire country. The state began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples within the first minute of December 6, 2012, marking the first time the citizens of an American state have voted in favor of marriage equality. Among the cheers and celebrations, newlyweds and those planning a wedding will have to discuss the unromantic but very important issues of the rights, benefits, and obligations that come with the legal contract of marriage.
In preparation for the flood of legal concerns associated with same-sex marriage, Town Hall hosted an event called Marriage Equality Explained on Dec. 3. Judge Anne Levinson moderated an informational panel of civil rights attorneys David Ward (Legal Voice), Hank Balson (American Civil Liberties Union), Shelbi Day (Lambda Legal), and Jill Mullins (QLaw Foundation). They each offered preliminary advice for soon-to-be-married couples and explained some of the finer points of the law as it applies to same-sex marriage in Washington and beyond.
MC Kris Hermanns, Director of the Pride Foundation, started the event by saying, “Let us just pause and recognize that we arrive at this moment.” It was one of many thunderous rounds of applause for the evening. Marriage Equality Explained was a highly personal experience for many who sat in the audience and nearly all of the lawyers and lawmakers who took the stage at the Great Hall auditorium. A brief show of hands revealed a majority of the crowd to be in domestic partnership agreements, some for several decades. Among them were State Senator Ed Murray, as well as State Representatives Jamie Pedersen and Laurie Jenkins. All three of these politicians have participated in the pursuit of marriage equality in Washington for at least 15 years and were instrumental in not only Referendum 74, but earlier efforts like Referendum 71 for domestic partnership.
While same-sex married couples are now treated equally under the law in Washington, the matter is far more complicated for them when they cross state lines. Though they gain some 400 rights and benefits in Washington, there are over 1,000 they are still denied on the federal level. For example, federal employees, including military servicepeople, will still not be allowed to include their same-sex spouses in their insurance plans because the Defense of Marriage Act is still in effect.
Same-sex married couples will also have to be wary of how different states treat their legal status. Some states, like New York and New Hampshire, will fully recognize same-sex marriages made in Washington. Other states, such as Idaho, will not recognize any legal rights for same-sex couples. There are also more complex exceptions in the handful of states that have no specific statutes concerning same-sex marriage. A state may confer some marriage-like benefits on same-sex couples, but there is no formal law and little precedent to suggest consistent rulings. Moderator Anne Levinson joked that some intrepid Seattle programmer should create a smartphone application to track changes in same-sex marriage policy in each state.
The legal panel strongly suggested that any same-sex couple considering marriage seek the help of an attorney. Though many states will continue to deny most marriage rights to same-sex couples, none have the power to ignore documents such as power of attorney agreements and mutual parentage agreements. Power of attorney papers can protect couples in such circumstances as medical emergencies and long-term nursing care. For same-sex couples married in Washington, backup documents can be vital to retaining rights elsewhere in the United States.
Within Washington’s borders, the most significant change will be in domestic partnership law. Those who currently have registered domestic partnerships in which one partner is under the age of 62 will automatically be legally married as of June 30, 2014. People who registered their domestic partnership in Washington State will have the option to perform a dissolution of that partnership if they do not wish to be married. After June 30, 2014, Washington will no longer issue domestic partnerships to same-sex couples, unless one of the participants is over the age of 62. This is identical to the existing law for opposite-sex couples.
It should also be noted that those legally married in another state or country would automatically be considered married in Washington. There is not only no need to marry again in this state, it can also create legal confusion on vital documents to have more than one date of marriage on file. It is also important to remember that same-sex marriages performed outside of Washington State cannot be dissolved in Washington. Along with the right to marry comes the right to divorce and all of the legal headaches involved in that process.
There is a three-day waiting period to confirm any marriage license issued in Washington, so the first official same-sex marriages in the state will be on the books as of Dec. 9. To celebrate this, Seattle City Hall is hosting a special event with four ad hoc chapels constructed by local artists in the lobby at 600 Fourth Avenue from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Couples who wish to participate in the event must RSVP when they get their marriage licenses on Dec. 6.