Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the issue of same sex marriage in two high profile cases. The results of those cases has changed the laws regarding same sex marriage in many jurisdictions throughout the United States and how our federal government views those marriages.
In Wisconsin, our laws continue to prohibit same sex marriage. The impact, however, of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions has made issues involving rights of many married same sex couples in Wisconsin more complicated and confusing when it comes to their federal rights.
In one of the decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the provision of the Defense of Marriage Act (1996) (“DOMA”) that says that marriage must be between a man and a woman. As a result, the federal government cannot refuse benefits to same sex couples who are legally married and reside in a state that allows the same.
Unfortunately, each federal agency/program has their own rules to grant rights and benefits to married same sex couples who reside in states which do not allow such marriages. As a result, there is a lot of inconsistency as to how federal rights and benefits are awarded to same sex couples who are legally married in one state, but reside in a state that does not recognize such a marriage. The decision to award such federal rights and benefits is then based on whether the agency/program follows the “Place of Domicile” rule or “Place of Celebration” rule. It is important for such couples to know their rights.
Presently, there are 13 states that allow same sex couples the right to marry. It is common, however, for couples to move between states or marry in one state and live in another. As a result, there are many couples whose legal status and right to benefits come into legal question.
While Wisconsin does not allow same sex marriage, if you are married legally in a state that does allow such a marriage and you then move to Wisconsin, it is important to know your federal rights as a spouse. Further, spouses should consider registering with the Wisconsin State Domestic Partnership Registry which currently entitles those spouses to 43 rights within Wisconsin, including for example, the right to spousal privilege in legal proceedings, Family Medical Leave Act benefits, etc.
Married same sex couples in Wisconsin should consult with appropriate legal counsel to address estate planning issues, issues involving common children, and other property related issues.
Should such a marriage deteriorate to the point of divorce, it is also important to consult with a family law attorney knowledgeable in this field to discuss legal options to terminate a marriage even if the State of Wisconsin does not legally recognize that marriage.