In 2008, Lauren Beth Czekala-Chatham traveled with her then-partner from their home in Mississippi to San Francisco, a few months after gay marriage became legal in California. They’d been together for about a year and a half before they decided to get married.
After the ceremony, they went back to Mississippi, where they lived together. Then a year later, they decided to split up. The state of Mississippi doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage, however, so they couldn’t get a divorce there.
“It’s a very unfortunate predicament to be in, because you realize you cannot get divorced in your state of residence,” says Kody Silva, a divorce attorney in Washington, D.C. “And the state you were married in will not allow you to get divorced unless you go back and essentially become a resident of that state.”
Silva says that you would have to live in the state you got married in for at least six months — or longer in some states. Establishing residency means getting utilities and a driver’s license in your name.
“You don’t want to have to move in order to achieve a divorce that your straight couple friends can do without having to go through that hassle,” Silva says.
It’s more than just an address change, says Meaghan Hearn, an attorney who works with Silva in the District. “You’re talking about kids. You’re talking about owning a house in one state, having kids in school in one state. You’re already going through a tough time separating from your spouse, and to add this on top of it is another layer of complexity.”
Hearn and Silva have seen quite a few same-sex divorce cases. When gay marriage became legal in D.C. on March 3, 2010, Silva says there was a lot of excitement. Couples who had been together for years went to the courthouse and got married, and so did couples who had only been together for a few months.
But the hype wore off quickly, Silva says. He’s had a lot of divorce cases in which the marriage took place on or near March 3, 2010.
In Washington, D.C., and a handful of other states, divorce laws are slightly looser. The district allows people who were married in D.C. to travel back to the city and file. Once a couple can file, a divorce is a divorce.
Having to move to a different state isn’t ideal, which is why advocates for marriage equality want the U.S. Supreme Court to take up a marriage equality case — not just for the sake of marriage, but for the sake of divorce too.
Back in Mississippi, Czekala-Chatham decided to take her case to court last year so she doesn’t have to wait.
“People get divorced. It’s a part of life. We don’t want it to happen, but it happens,” she says. “If we can get the state to recognize an out-of-state marriage, maybe down the road we can get them to recognize same-sex marriage and allow it in the state.”
Czekala-Chatham lost the initial case, and has appealed the decision. She’s currently waiting for a new court date.