Are We Married Here? Knowing Which States Recognize Your Gay Marriage

Scales of Justice

Heather & I, your Legally Yours columnists, are married.

We got married in Washington, D.C. earlier this year and we live in Maryland.

Not that long ago, we took a road trip to Delaware and, as we often do, we looked at each other and said, “are we married here?” Turns out, we weren’t sure, but that’s not all that surprising. We’re not sure, either, if Maryland will recognize, for all legal intents and purposes, our marriage either (for a quick visual, check out the Human Rights Campaign’s Map of Relationship Recognition Laws).

And so the inequality of the state of our union was in our faces: we live in a country filled with legally gray space.

If you haven’t gotten the message yet from your local paper, your favorite internet news site, or your 1,768th Facebook friend, gay marriage is a hot-button issue. It’s a hot-button issue. Legal and otherwise.

We lawyers who work with LGBTQ families are uber-excited to be working in family law in 2010 both because of the possibility for our clients and their families and because it’s legally interesting terrain (it’s dynamic and filled with quandaries to ponder). But the rest the non-lawyers among us are left to wonder: isn’t marriage enough to protect my spouse and family?

I’ll just cut to the chase: no.

Marriage, without marriage recognition and social equality, is not enough.

As annoying as this reality is, it is a reality that must be dealt with as we ponder the ups and downs of your same-sex marriage. And there is a ton to think about: Where do you want to live? How do you want to title your car? Your house? Do you want your partner-soon-to-be-spouse to make medical decisions for you in the event that you can’t? Do you have children from a previous relationship? Do you want to procreate in this one? Do you want your partner/spouse to inherit upon your death? Are you in the military? Do you want to stay in the military? And these are just a few of the questions that come to mind.

So, how do you find the answers?

Well, at the risk of being self-promoting, you talk to a lawyer. But just as you wouldn’t have a dermatologist do your open-heart surgery, you don’t want to talk to just any lawyer. You need to find someone who knows the pitfalls and pluses of same-sex marriage where you live.

There are lawyers, I promise, who’ve been serving the LGBTQ community for years where you live, wherever you live, and there are some who just realized that LGBTQ people can pay just like their straight clients, but who haven’t spent much time working in our community or thinking about the impact of the choppy legal terrain. Ask your friends and colleagues who they have used, ask your local bar association if they have a lawyer referral service that includes an LGBTQ subspecialty, and ask good questions when you call for a consult.

Think of that first conversation with your potential attorney, the one you are going to pay for his or her expertise, as a job interview. You want to find out what they know about this area of the law: can I get married in this state? Even if I can’t get married here, can I get divorced here? How would I get divorced if I needed to? What other relationship-planning documents might I need? Are there any family-planning options that will be foreclosed to me if I get married? What other things do my partner and I need to think about? A lawyer who works in this area regularly is going to have thoughtful answers to these questions and more.

Not to knock the romance out of your relationship, but marriage is a legal institution. Make sure you know what rights and obligations you’ll receive in your state, and what you won’t, and be sure to plan for the days and nights you pass through non-recognition states, too.

Legally Yours,

Emily & Heather

Heather McCabe and Emily Russell are family law practitioners who regularly serve the LGBT community in all kinds of legal affairs – from adoptions to dissolutions/divorces. McCabe has taught family law and legal writing and has been on the faculty at Georgetown Law, American University, and University of Baltimore. Russell worked as a lobbyist before coming to the law. Whether through document drafting, mediation, collaborative law, or litigation, McCabe and Russell are committed to the creation and security of the unique families they serve.