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What's at Stake in Gay Divorce


Anyone who has ever gone through a divorce knows how complicated and stressful the divorce process can be. Though the United States' legal system contains many well-established laws and procedures for divorce, the act of ending a relationship in which both partners have a deep emotional investment can cause distress to all parties involved.

So imagine how difficult divorce proceedings are for those couples who don't benefit from the same protections as the rest of the country. For same-sex couples seeking a divorce in the United States, divorce can be even more difficult than it is for everybody else.

A recent report in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer details some of the issues facing same-sex couples in Washington, where legal same-sex unions were established almost a year ago.

According to the article, activists for gay and lesbian couples are seeking rights beyond the simple right of union, such as community property rights, probate protections, joint responsibility for debts, end-of-life rights, nursing home visitation, veterans' benefits and spousal testimonial privileges.

Basically, House Bill 3104 and Senate Bill 6716 would give gay couples more of the rights already enjoyed by straight married couples. Among the rights demanded by these Washingtonians, according to sources, is the right to divorce.

The issue of gay divorce was raised last year when two women from Rhode Island sought to end their union - which had been established in Massachusetts - in RI, where they lived. Since a Rhode Island court ruled that it could not offer the women a divorce, divorce for same-sex couples has been a hot topic in the United States.

The Washington Post has addressed the issue in great detail, highlighting the many benefits of a legal divorce to which gay couples do not have access.

Divorce among same-sex couples can be studied best in states like Massachusetts that actually have laws permitting gay marriage. The Post's article centers on issues in the Bay State, including the following.

Child Custody: Courts have traditionally favored a child's mother in custody hearings, but in same-sex unions there are sometimes two mothers - and sometimes none. Because no clear-cut laws exist to determine custody cases, these issues must be argued on a case by case basis.

Alimony: Because the federal government does not recognize same-sex marriages, it offers no tax break for alimony payments. This can hurt both of the divorcing spouses, since the tax break that straight divorcees receive is often an incentive to pay.

Tax Issues: Again, because same-sex marriages don't exist in the eyes of the federal government, divorcing partners cannot share assets without tax hurdles: gift taxes might apply, retirement accounts might be taxed and assets are tricky to divide.

And because of the divorce laws in Massachusetts, the division of assets depends on the length of the marriage. After 25 years of marriage, for instance, property is divided evenly - but marriage for same-sex couples has only been legal for three years.

The Post indicates that judges have begun treating unions between longtime partners as longer marriages, though they have been legal only a few years.

The issue of gay marriage and gay divorce will not go away any time soon. For updates on developments around the country on this and other issues, visit the articles section of Total Divorce.

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