The Massachusetts Supreme Court has recently issued an important ruling, holding that a prior Vermont Civil Union is equivalent to a marriage – and therefore the subsequent marriage of on of the civil union partners was bigamous. The case was brought by Todd Elia-Warnken against his Massachusetts spouse, and can be read in its entirety at http://www.glad.org/uploads/docs/cases/elia-warnken-v-elia/elia-sjc-decision-7-26-12.pdf.
The analysis of the court was logical and, in my mind, entirely fair. The judges ruled that the Vermont civil union was a “marriage equivalent” registration. Thus, since Todd and his civil union partner had never obtained a marital divorce of their civil union Todd’s subsequent Massachusetts marriage was bigamous. Ironically, while it invalidated Todd’s Massachusetts marriage, the broader principle of recognition of the Vermont civil union is what is most important.
There are two key consequences of this ruling. First, those who registered as civil union partners in Vermont but live in Massachusetts will be treated as married — and that is a good thing for couples living together, or having to go through a divorce in Massachusetts. It means that all of the rights and duties of marriage will apply to those couples. The second consequence is that if anyone has married someone other than their civil union partner, without having obtained a dissolution of their civil union, is in a bigamous marriage. They will need to go back and dissolve their civil union – which they can do in Massachusetts – and then marry again their new partner.
It is most likely that other state courts will follow the lead of Massachusetts, and treat the Vermont civil union as a marriage when it comes to deciding if a subsequent marriage is bigamous. This may be inconvenient for the partners who failed to get a dissolution before remarrying, but it’s the right decision.