Partners Task Force for Gay & Lesbian Couples
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Marriage: Legal versus Ceremonial
© 2002, Demian

The word “marriage” packs a lot of meaning. Because it contains two widely divergent definitions, it has also been widely misunderstood. This is due to that fact that marriage is both a legal as well as a ceremonial event.

Ceremonial marriages, sometimes called “weddings,” are performed by churches, temples, and within other social events. They can be tailored to reflect religious and philosophical views.

Legal marriage — only obtained through a license in the United States — is entirely the responsibility of each state. This legal status has very specific rules and procedures affecting between 120-300 rights and responsibilities, depending upon one’s resident state.

On the federal level, more than 1,138 rights and responsibilities are triggered. [Please see U.S. Federal Laws for the Legally Married.

[The federal law disingenuously called DoMA tramples on the rights of states to decide the criteria of legal marriage. No other federal law has ever defined who can get a marriage license. Nor has it ever regulated who’s marriage license it will honor or disallow.]

Opposite-sex couples may combine both the legal and ceremonial events, but they are entirely distinct under our nation’s constitutional separation of church and state.

In order to simulate only a small fraction of these rights, a same-sex couple would need to spend as much as $3,000 for legal and related fees. And these documents need to be renewed about every four years. Wills, powers of attorney and relationship agreements give same-sex couples some say in the conduct of their personal affairs in the event of major life changes.

Because same-sex couples are considered strangers in the eyes of the law — no matter how long one is in a committed relationship — same-sex couples must go to extraordinary lengths to protect their families. [Please see our Legal Precautions to Protect Your Relationship.]

And these documents can all be challenged by blood relatives. In many jurisdictions, the relatives would have the weight of the law — and the prejudice of judges — on their side. Also, while the documents are as much as couples are allowed to legally create, they still cannot cover, for instance, the rights to:

  • recover damages based on injury to a partner,
  • have joint custody over the children of one partner,
  • receive survivor’s benefits,
  • have a foreign partner become a U.S. citizen,
  • live in housing for married persons or neighborhoods zoned “family only,”
  • collect unemployment benefits after leaving a job to relocate because of a partner’s job move, or
  • refuse to testify against one’s partner in court.
[Please see our extensive Marriage Benefits List.]

Because same-sex couples love each other, they naturally want to be able to care for each other. This could all be accomplished with but a single legal document — usually available for about $35 — that could settled definitively the right of same-sex couples to protect their families.

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