Attorney Roslyn A. Quarto on the “responsibilities” side of civil unions.
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This month I have decided to use my column to discuss the important, and often overlooked, issue of the “responsibilities” side of civil unions. As an attorney who has provided counsel to gays and lesbians for more than a decade, I am all too familiar with our community’s quest to obtain equal rights to protect our relationships and our families. It was less than 20 years ago that we were thrilled with the prospect of domestic partnership registration in New York City, even though it was a status that provided few rights. Even as recently as three years ago, with the enactment of Domestic Partnership legislation in New Jersey, few rights and protections were provided to us. Yet, as we come closer to same-sex marriage and acquiring the rights associated with marriage throughout the country, we need to remember that those rights and protections are accompanied by a myriad of obligations and responsibilities. In our rush to take advantage of these new rights, we have not as a community, and in many instances as individuals, taken the time to examine all of the possible ramifications of entering into a marriage, or in the case of New Jersey, a civil union.
The recently enacted New Jersey Civil Union legislation grants those that enter into a civil union “all of the same benefits, protections and responsibilities [emphasis added] under the law...as are granted to spouses in a marriage.” Because many of us registered as domestic partners over the years and are now rushing into marriages or civil unions, we need to consider the far-reaching legal implications of such unions. Once we enter into a civil union we take on the obligation to financially support our partners and the responsibility for our partners’ debts. We also place limitations on our rights to sell jointly owned property and to freely decide who will inherit our property. Some of these obligations will continue even after the civil union dissolves. For the first time in history, our unions must be dissolved in divorce court, some of us will be required to pay alimony and the courts will decide how to distribute assets that were acquired during the civil union.
While the growing divorce rate in this country demonstrates that heterosexual couples often enter into marriages lightly, I believe that we as a community should educate ourselves to be more discerning than our heterosexual counterparts. By respecting the institution of marriage and entering into our unions with a full understanding of all its implications, we show those that would continue to deprive us of equal rights that our community believes in family values—in the truest sense of the term.
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*This column is not a consultation with an attorney and should in no way be construed as such or as a substitute for such consultation. Anyone with legal issues or concerns should seek the advice of her own attorney.