An attorney's thoughts on marriage in Washington state
by Martin Sjolie -
Special to the SGN
So many of us are ecstatic over the approval of Referendum 74 on November 6. The effect of this law on the dignity of our intimate relationships will be profound and transformative, both to society and to us. The words 'my husband' and 'my wife' now assume a very real and legal significance in our LGBT lexicon, where previously we may have used these endearments only in jest.
This having been said, I have no plans to marry. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, I would never marry anyone who would have me for a husband. I do not consider marriage a civic duty like voting, no matter how valiantly the recent battle was fought and won. Indeed, there are many things that I could do legally which I choose not to do. Obtaining a hunting license, for example, or wearing a Spandex thong. I don't speak for everyone, obviously.
This is written to encourage thought and planning before committing to wed. There are few more regrettable decisions in life than a hasty or improvident marriage. One should be sure to marry for the right reasons, at the right time, and, most importantly, to the right person. So here is a very brief discussion of marriage in Washington and its legal ramifications.
FIVE THINGS TO CONSIDER
First, you cannot marry someone if you are married already. That is bigamy - a Class C felony in Washington. One would think that quite obvious, but consider this: If you are one of the many who went on one of those marriage junkets so popular a few years ago, jetting off to New England or Canada for a romantic matrimonial getaway, then you may be married already. Your nuptials are recognized as a legal marriage in Washington, and not as some weekend lark that you are free to forget. If you remain happily coupled with your spouse, then all is well. Mazel tov. But if you parted ways some time ago, you must obtain a divorce or annulment before remarrying.
Second, marriage is a permanent contract with no warranty or guarantee. One marries for better or worse, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer. There are only two ways to end a legal marriage in this state: divorce or the death of a spouse. The matrimonial relationship is not terminated by simply packing one's bags and leaving the marital tent. Divorce can be a painful and expensive process. It is not glamorous. And so if you are one of these serial monogamists who go through partners like Kleenex tissues, marriage may not be the wisest option for you at this time. Grow up a bit first.
Third, this is a community property state. The wealth that you accumulate during your marriage will be deemed marital assets, legally belonging to both of you. And you will be liable for the debts incurred by your spouse. Further, your marital assets may be subject to legal claims, should your spouse incur medical expenses or cause a car accident, for example.
You should think twice before wedding someone who is financially irresponsible, as it could become your own personal nightmare very quickly. If your intended is now getting daily calls from collection agencies, be warned that soon they may be calling you as well.
Fourth, your spouse has inheritance rights. If you die first, your spouse will have a legal right to a portion of your estate, even if you have written a will directing otherwise.
Fifth, marriage may jeopardize your pension or public benefits. Before hiring a caterer, you should get in touch with the appropriate office or government agency and ascertain precisely what effect your marriage will have on your future benefits or entitlements. This includes federal programs. Bear in mind that DOMA will be repealed eventually. It's a question of when, not if.
DON'T BE A BAD EXAMPLE
It is not my intention to rain on anyone's nuptial parade. Indeed, I am very hopeful that the enactment of marriage equality in our state will result in many happy and enduring marriages, thus contributing to the dignity of our intimate relationships. But I do fear that many may enter this hallowed estate with eyes less than wide open. And I would hate to see our detractors given the ammunition to say, 'See, I told you so.'
Fifty years from now, as I sit in my wheelchair, I hope to read many announcements of golden Gay wedding anniversaries. I also hope to read that divorce rates for Gay couples are significantly lower than the national average. With more than half of all new marriages now destined for divorce, I would observe that the bar is low, and that goal is achievable.
TWO PROACTIVE STEPS
I close by offering two suggestions to the marriage-minded:
Consider premarital couples counseling. Many excellent professionals offer classes and private sessions, and it is standard procedure in many churches. Find out if you two are truly compatible before you register a china pattern. Does one of you have a problem with anger management or chemical abuse? Do either of you come from a broken home and, if so, what was the cause of that breakup? What are your long-term goals in life, and where do you see your union in 20 years? It may be an enlightening experience. And if the counseling gives you second thoughts, it is far better that this happens now than after the wedding.
Also, consider a prenuptial agreement, drafted by a qualified attorney. (Two attorneys, actually.) For a prenuptial agreement to be enforceable, it must meet certain requirements: Its terms must be fair to both parties, there must be full disclosure of all assets and liabilities, and each party must have access to his or her own legal advisor. Even if a marriage is successful and the agreement is never needed, it still provides lasting peace of mind and security. In my many years of practice, I never once heard anyone say, 'I wish I hadn't gotten that prenup.'
As we look forward to legal marriage flourishing within our community, let us resolve to make our marriages healthy, happy, and durable. And let us pause to learn from the mistakes of others who have walked the aisle before us. Congratulations and best wishes.
Martin Sjolie is an attorney based in Capitol Hill, Seattle. He can be reached at (206) 841-1373 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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