For years, we have listened to debates in the media regarding whether Colorado should, or should not, allow civil unions. The debate ended on March 21, 2013, when the Governor signed into law the Colorado Civil Unions Act, Senate Bill 13-011. Starting May 1, 2013, Colorado will allow civil unions. Under the new law, persons of the same or different gender will be able to enter into legally recognized unions. As civil unions are designed to be similar to marriage and allow the partners to such similar rights, it stands to reason that the new law will also have an impact in the area of divorce law. I have started researching the subject and the coming changes, not only to educate myself, but to also prepare our firm to start handling cases involving the break up of civil unions. Just like marriages, people come together and grow apart. Just like in marriages, people fight. Now, just like marriages, there will be a legal process to get people through those break ups in an orderly, and legal, fashion.
The new Act, which will primarily be contained in Colorado Revised Statues, Title 14, Article 15, is full of new definitions, rules, and procedures. The Act contains language defining a civil union, indicating who can legally enter into one, setting forth the legal process for effectuating a union, and setting forth how to get out of one. Divorce law is generally set forth in C.R.S. Title 14, Article 10. Commencing May 1, 2013, Article 10 will now contain Section 106.5, which specifically states that the procedure for dissolving a civil union will be the same as the procedure for seeking a Colorado divorce.
Likewise, the new statute indicates that partners to a civil union will have the same rights as parties in a divorce case, meaning they will now have a family oriented forum to deal with issues of alimony(maintenance), property division, debt division, and other issues people will generally fight over in a divorce. Prior to the Act, people in a non-marriage situation, whether same sex or not, have been forced to litigate dividing up property in a regular civil court setting; and there was no right to alimony. Now they will be afforded a forum with more of a family law flare.
Once the law goes into effect, people will need to apply for a civil union license and register it in their county of abode. Once done, the State of Colorado will recognize the union and confer rights to the partners that might otherwise not be conferred in a boyfriend-girlfriend, girlfriend-girfriend, or boyfriend-boyfriend relationship. For Denver area divorce lawyers, this will certainly mean a new area of litigation. At the same time, those attorneys will already be fully aware of the substantive body of law which will apply to the dissolution of a civil union. The Act does contain language indicating that a marriage is still between a man and a woman. Rights and rules will be gender blind.
Under current law, same sex couples, just as couples of differing genders, can already fight for their rights regarding child support, custody, visitation, etc. in the domestic relations courts and under the domestic relations laws. As such, my immediate perception is that the law will likely have little impact on those types of issues. At the same time, one cannot anticipate all potential issues which may arise. Without much language on these subjects contained in the Act, as relates specifically to family law, the courts will likely be left to clean up any ambiguities or ommisions made by the legislature. Time will tell.
Some interesting points of the Act, relate not only to dissolution of civil unions, or marriage, but to other aspects of creating the union. A union must be between two adults. Thus, a question arises as to whether minors can enter a civil union? They can marry with parental consent. A party to a civil union cannot be married or a party to another civil union, similar to rules against bigamy. However, can a party to a civil union marry another person? This may have an impact on divorce laws as relates to the validity of a marriage. As with divorce law, the Act also indicates that Title 14, Article 10 will apply as relates to challenging the validity of a civil union and the seeking an annulment of such. The Act also goes on to indicate that partners to a civil union can seek a legal separation as opposed to the dissolution of the civil union. Again, the rights will be the same as in the Colorado divorce or legal separation setting.
Perhaps the most glaring distinction or difference between the Civil Union Act and current divorce statutes relates to the notions of venue and jurisdiction, meaning where, or in which court or county, a case is heard. Denver custody, divorce, and family law cases are heard at the District Court level. Civil union dissolution cases will be as well. In a divorce case, attorneys defer to Colorado Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 98, which indicates that a case shall be heard in the county in which the Respondent, meaning the person not filing the case, resides. However, the new Act indicates that a dissolution of a civil union case can be heard in the county in which the Petitioner resides, the county in which the Respondent resides, or in the county in which the civil union certificate was issued. Thus, unlike a divorce, there are essentially 3 appropriate counties in which a dissolution of civil union case can be filed. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Everyone entering a civil union might rush to Denver County to get their civil unions established, as they may fear different treatment in the judicial system in a less urban, liberal area of the state. I am not sure if this venue provision was thought through by the legislature, or if the courts are ready for the potential influx of licenses and cases for people from other jurisdictions? Again, only time will tell.
Some additional changes to the law are that partners to a civil union may now seek restraining orders to prevent domestic abuse, as well as support that comes with that designation. Likewise, prospective parties can enter into agreements or contracts similar to pre-nuptual agreements, prior to entering into their civil unions. There are many more changes outside of the dissolution realm set forth in the Act. As this blog deals with family law subjects, I will end this post with that which is stated above.
With the advent of this new legal area upon us, it is time for Denver family law attorneys to get ready for the changes. They are only a few weeks away. The law evolves, and the system adapts. As not every scenario related to civil unions can be anticipated, the court system will initially “wing it” in terms of how it deals with these new cases. The attorneys at Plog & Stein will be ready for the changes, and I anticipate that our first civil union case will come within the next few months. The new Act does not say how long people must be in a union before they dissolve it. Human nature leads me to presume it won’t be long before the first case hits the court.