Massachusetts Supreme Court Holds that a Vermont Civil Union Must Be Treated as a Marriage in Massachusetts
Yesterday, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that a Vermont civil union “is the functional equivalent of a marriage” and must be treated as a marriage under Massachusetts law.
In the case of Elia-Warnken v. Elia, Plaintiff, Todd Elia-Warnken, and Defendant, Richard Elia, were a same-sex couple who were married in Massachusetts in 2005. In 2009, Todd filed for divorce. Richard learned that, at the time of the marriage, Todd was already in a Vermont civil union with another man.
Since Todd was already in a Vermont civil union, Richard argued that no divorce was necessary because the marriage between the two men was void under Massachusetts law, which states that a marriage is not valid if “either party … has a former wife or husband living.” Todd responded by arguing that a civil union was not equal to a marriage in Vermont or in Massachusetts and, therefore, the marriage was a valid one.
Susan Murray (VFM co-founder), Alexia Venafra (VFM Vice Chair), and Hobart Popick (VFM supporter), all of whom are attorneys at Langrock Sperry & Wool in Burlington, filed a friend of the court “amicus” brief arguing that: (1) under Vermont law, the rights and obligations under a civil union are equal to those under a marriage and that Todd’s civil union with another man at the time he married Richard rendered their marriage invalid under Vermont law; and (2) if the court were to decide that Todd and Richard’s marriage was valid, Todd would be able to demand spousal protections (such as alimony, inheritances, and healthcare coverage) from both Richard and his civil union partner at the same time. The Massachusetts high court agreed with our arguments and held that Todd’s marriage to Richard was invalid given that Todd was in a Vermont civil union at the time he married Richard.
Read the decision and briefs on GLAD's website.
Though the end of any relationship is a sad time, this case reaffirms that Vermont civil unions must be treated the same as marriage, and that those who entered into a civil union deserve protections equal to those offered under a marriage. We look forward to the day when DOMA is overturned, and the legal unions and marriages of same-sex couples receive both state and federal recognition.