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Navigating the Nuances of LGBTQ+ Divorce in California

The end of a marriage is always challenging for the couple involved, and the impact on family members can be significant. Those in LGBTQ+ marriages are no different. Issues around child custody, property division, spousal support, and the enforcement of prenuptial agreements all apply to same-sex couples.

In California, there is no common-law marriage. In some cases, the LGBTQ+ couple may not have been married long at the time of the divorce, but they may have been together for much longer than the marriage itself. Whether they were registered as a domestic partnership will make a difference. In such cases, the couple will have similar rights and obligations as those married for the same length of time.

For example, in California, if the couple were married four years ago, spousal support—in most cases—would only be for approximately two years. However, if they were registered as domestic partners for 20 years and then had a four-year marriage, spousal support could be until either party’s death or the recipient spouse’s remarriage.

The Unique Challenges Around Parental Rights

Dealing with parental rights is difficult regardless of the orientation of the couple involved. When I advise clients, I try my best to have them focus on the best interests of their children. Divorce is typically the most challenging for the children.

Nuanced complications can arise depending on how the children came into the family. Was it by adoption, surrogacy, or assisted reproductive technology? For LGBTQ+ couples, it is essential that everything is done legally and correctly and that both parents are included in legally binding contracts. In the case of surrogacy or assisted reproductive technology (also known as IVF), mainly when sperm or eggs are donated from someone outside the relationship, it is critically important that the sperm or egg donor has no rights or obligations. Otherwise, things can get murky in a legal sense.

The bottom line is that couples need to secure an excellent lawyer to protect their interests and those of their children. Putting the children first should always be the priority.

Additional Considerations

I have been told that in the LGBTQ+ community, particularly amongst those who identify as men, there can be a preponderance of open relationships. I have been asked if that can complicate a potential divorce. Because California is a no-fault state regarding divorce, it does not matter who sleeps with whom. The only issue is if one person spends community dollars on another person outside the marriage. A relevant factor would be if it were an open marriage and what the understanding of that meant financially and otherwise. Ideally, a couple would document these nuances with their lawyer. Without pre- or post-nuptial agreements addressing such relationship guidelines, spending outside the marriage on another relationship can become a problem during divorce proceedings.

Another question I am often asked is if same-sex couples should seek divorce attorneys who identify as similar to themselves. I can easily see how that might be a comfortable choice. And I do not advocate against it. The most important criterion is the attorney’s skill and if you can relate to them. I know for myself, I am confident I can help my clients, whether they are gay, non-binary, or fluid. My commitment and level of advocacy are always going to be the same.

Concerns over the Future Loom Large

In the past, same-sex couples who married in other states faced the risk that their marriages would not be recognized in another state. The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision in 2015 required that all states, including California, recognize same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions. For those married in California, we are fortunate that LGBTQ+ rights have long been progressive. On the other hand, recent rumbling from the U.S. Supreme Court suggests those protections may be in jeopardy.

I am personally troubled by what some Justices have indicated in dissenting opinions. I remember life before Roe v. Wade and life before Obergfell. I have always been concerned about subsequent elections and the future makeup of our nation’s highest court. Personally, I would hate to see our country go backward on marriage equality.

I have always believed in the institution of marriage. And I am a realist who recognizes that marriages can and do end for a multitude of reasons. It might be surprising to hear a divorce attorney say this, but I would prefer to see couples work things out. But when they cannot, I will be the best advocate for my clients, regardless of how they identify. In the end, divorce is a tricky thing to go through, and whether you are part of a same-sex couple or opposite-sex makes little difference.

© 2024 Blank Rome LLP
by: Stacy D. Phillips of Blank Rome LLP

For more news on LGBTQ+ Family Law, visit the NLR Family Law / Divorce / Custody section.

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