The Gay Divorcees

Gay marriage is new. Gay divorce isn't.

Barring a last-minute stay of the California Supreme Court's May decision, the state will begin allowing same-sex couples to wed on June 17. More marriages, logically, mean more divorces. Divorce lawyers, however, deny that they'll soon be eating six meals a day.

"This doesn't necessarily increase the pool of people coming to an attorney for assistance," San Francisco divorce lawyer Cheryl Sena says. Attorney Erik Newton adds, "I guess there will probably be more for me to do, but I think it's a splash in the bucket."

That's because while California is taking its first steps into the good times of gay marriage, it has offered the bad times of gay divorce for years.

As of Jan. 1, 2005, state law transferred most of the benefits of marriage — as well as the burdens of divorce — to California's 48,500 registered domestic partnerships. Except for the most cursory dissolutions, domestic partner breakups must now be handled as family law court cases.

Prior to 2005, all same-sex couples needed to do to put asunder their domestic partnerships was to write to the Secretary of State. For childless couples who have been together fewer than five years and have no communal property, this is still an option, and 741 did so last year. But long-term couples with kids and/or clutter are lawyering up: Since 2005, 118 couples have petitioned to dissolve their partnerships in San Francisco Superior Court.

Thumbing through the sheaves of same-sex divorce petitions at the courthouse reveals no shortage of vindictive ex-partners doing battle over the house, the car, and even the Baccarat crystal. In one case, a man accuses his former beau of posting "nude photos of me from his home computer" onto Craigslist. The couple also quibbled about a million-dollar condo — while also parsing a Costco bill.

Another couple amicably agreed who would get the white ostrich-leather stools and the quilt with the Texas star pattern, but disagreed over the basis of their partnership. In short, one man said he was coerced into signing some documents without examining them at a family wedding under pain of his boyfriend pulling a diva act in public and ruining the nuptials. Those documents supposedly turned out to be their domestic partnership forms. Needless to say, this account was contested. Finally, a third San Francisco couple argued in its dissolution over who should pay the carpet cleaning bills.

Still, while some divorces have gotten nasty, the relatively small number of gay couples who have untied the knot in San Francisco perhaps suggests a level of marital stability opposite-sex spouses can only dream of — take that, Lou Sheldon! (One caveat: Newton says it's entirely possible that significant numbers of same-sex couples are simply walking out on each other and failing to legally cut the cord.)

Such an exit strategy would be ill advised for the predicted cavalcades of queer couples crashing City Hall from June 17 on. But they'll have more immediate worries: With the specter of a November referendum nipping same-sex marriages in the bud, divorce attorneys and law professors contacted by SF Weekly say gay couples are heading for a legal minefield.

Here's one intriguing legal question: If domestic partners marry, does communal property date to the beginning of the partnership or the marriage? All our experts said it'd be the domestic partnership — but the law is ambiguous. Also uncertain is just what becomes of legal same-sex marriages if the referendum passes in November; one lawyer predicted a "transmutation" of marriages into domestic partnerships.

In short, this month's blushing brides and grooms may not have a long honeymoon.

 
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