As the Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling came down last month, Robert Corona was walking to lunch in midtown Atlanta, right through the center of jubilation. As people cheered, hugged and waved rainbow flags, he reflected on his own very different reason to celebrate.
“Oh God, now I can get divorced,” he thought.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruling that made gay marriage legal in all states also paved the way for a decidedly less romantic outcome in Georgia: same-sex divorce.
Many gay Georgia couples married years ago in states where such unions were legal. Even though some relationships have fallen apart, they have remained literally locked in wedlock due to laws had made it nearly impossible to sever ties.
“The only thing worse than divorce, is not being able to get divorced,” said Jeff Graham of the gay rights group Georgia Equality.
There hasn’t been a rush to the courthouse in Georgia just yet. No one seems anxious to step to the front of the line, especially when the gay community is celebrating so many same-sex weddings.
Lawyers expect same-sex divorces will largely reflect those of opposite-sex couples. Yet the splits are raising issues about alimony, child custody and the division of assets that the courts have yet to resolve, issues that challenge the traditional roles in marriage.
Beyond that, gay and lesbian advocates worry that some judges may be biased against the couples.
“There’s always concern that minority populations could be treated unfairly by certain judges,” said Beth Littrell, a senior attorney for Lambda Legal in Atlanta.
Still, gay advocates say divorce represents a vast improvement over the past. A divorce proceeding neatly packages matters involving money, children and property.
Before the court ruling, those who tried to cobble together some form of legal split often faced a patchwork of messy court disputes over property, money, and children, attorneys say.
Corona and his husband have split in all but a legal sense. They separated amicably, but he said it’s been awkward trying to move on to another relationship while still being married. It requires a lot of explaining.
Corona married his partner in Connecticut in 2009, and they called it quits about two years ago. Prior to the June 26 court ruling, unhappily married couples could not divorce in Georgia because the state did not recognize them as married.
Making matters worse, the great majority of those states that permitted gay marriage, required people to be legal residents in order to file for divorce. In some states, those residency requirements could mean a year or more of living and working there.
The advent of same-sex divorce represents another step, however somber, in furthering the perception of normalcy in gay and lesbian life. Divorce is never a comfortable road to go down, and some same-sex couples are facing some uncharted territory.
For example, the courts have yet to decide when the clock legally starts on these unions. Some couples were together years before they were able to marry, investing in houses, sharing children and creating joint bank accounts.
What if a judge determines their legal union only began the day they were married, and does not count the years before? That means one spouse could lose a lot, said attorney Cynthia Wright, a former Fulton County Superior Court judge.
What if one spouse sacrificed their own career advancement to help the other in the years before they married? Will those years be considered when allotting any alimony? Moreover, how will judges look at alimony when the couple doesn’t fit the traditional perception of a husband and wife, but is instead two people of the same sex?
These issues have some precedent in opposite-sex divorces, but there is a distinction. Those straight couples had the legal right to marry in those prior years, whereas same-sex couples did not. That may sway a judge to see those years in a different light for same-sex couples, attorneys say.
Child custody and visitation could also prove tricky. Some same-sex couples have raised children together for years, but when they divorce, if one spouse has not established a legal relationship with the child, they could face problems.
“They could be treated as a legal stranger to this child,” said Littrell of Lambda Legal.
Still, divorcing couples say they welcome a legal mechanism that sets rules and helps prevent warring spouses from acting on their baser impulses. Beforehand, some angry, or just mean-spirited, spouses ran roughshod over their former partner.
Living in legal limbo without a divorce could be scary. If one spouse was involved in a bad car accident, the other spouse, however long estranged, could become responsible for end-of-life decisions.
Corona anticipates his divorce papers will be filed in the coming days. Both he and his former partner, who requested anonymity, are already dating new people.
Manuel Maldonado, who is dating Corona’s former partner, just submitted his own divorce papers Thursday. He’s ready to move on, but signing the final papers brought up feelings both happy and sad.
“It’s kind of a relief,” said Maldonado, 44, of Atlanta. “It’s also a little heartbreaking.”
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