No need for wedding bells for 3,700 state couples

Same-sex partnerships will be converted to marriages June 30 unless couples speak up

Staff writerMay 27, 2014 

About 3,700 couples in Washington have a wedding date set for June 30, and they don’t have to hire caterers, send out invitations — or even consent.

They became engaged, essentially, as soon as voters approved state recognition for same-sex marriage in 2012.

Until that law passed, gays and lesbians could enter into domestic partnerships as a legal approximation of marriage. Now that they can have the real thing, couples can’t have a domestic partnership unless at least one partner is 62 years or older.

Younger couples convert to newlyweds at the end of June if they do nothing. Many now have a decision to make.

Qayden Smith talked it over with his partner last week. They’ve been together since high school, and he thinks there’s a wedding in their future.

“She wants a pile of roses and the big fluffy white dress … and 13 bridesmaids,” said Smith, a transgender man from Kent. “It doesn’t matter to me. I was happy going to the courthouse. That got turned down.”

But that doesn’t mean they want to be married June 30, Smith’s 32nd birthday. Smith said they are leaning toward ending their domestic partnership so it doesn’t automatically convert. The pause would give them time to work through a rocky time in their relationship before committing to a full marriage.

Their decision will be informed by a session Smith attended last week in Tacoma where lawyers explained what’s at stake. Another is Thursday in Olympia.

On the state level, marriages offer gay couples the same array of legal benefits as domestic partnerships, including inheritance and parental rights. The vote for marriage equality didn’t change those.

But the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act last year, giving Washington’s newly married same-sex couples access to federal benefits involving Social Security, immigration, military service and more.

There could be drawbacks as well. Depending on how much money they make, for example, marriage can raise or lower two people’s federal income tax bills.

Smith learned about the federal benefits and obligations at the forum. He has no problem with the state automatically converting relationships to marriage, but others attending the forum and contacting state government have objected.

Reasons for not wanting to be married go beyond taxes and benefits. Some couples might be averse to the idea of marriage after years of being excluded from the institution.

Others might not even be together any more. “There are folks who split up with partners, and now they are realizing they need to actually formalize the divorce,” said David Ward, a Seattle lawyer with Legal Voice.

The marriage law’s authors struggled with what to do with domestic partnerships, said one of them, Tacoma Rep. Laurie Jinkins.

If partnerships stayed in place for some same-sex couples while remaining unavailable to different-sex couples younger than 62, Jinkins said, it could have given opponents an opening to attack them as special rights for gays.

So authors made a purely political decision to stop allowing new partnerships and to convert existing ones, she said. They kept the option for older couples, both gay and straight, who might in some cases risk losing pension or Social Security benefits by remarrying.

More than 3,000 domestically partnered couples have married, and more than 1,100 have died or dissolved their partnerships — the legal term for a divorce of domestic partners — since partnerships were created in 2007. More than 6,800 partnerships remain active.

It’s not clear how many have been dissolved to avoid the impending conversion, said Kris Reichl, policy coordinator for the Center for Health Statistics at the state Department of Health. But more than 350 partnerships have been dissolved since January 2013 and roughly 100 so far this year, she said.

There’s one more alternative for couples who don’t want to dissolve their partnership or get married. They can file for a legal separation, a rare option that Ward said has been used in the past to accommodate religious objections to divorce. That, Ward said, will leave them in a kind of legal “limbo.”

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