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Who gets what? It depends on where you live
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And that may be just the tip of the legal iceberg for same-sex couples. It remains to be seen whether California will recognize and extend the same family law protections to Vermont's civil unions, Massachusetts' gay marriages or Canadian same-sex marriages.

"What about a couple that gets married in California but then moves to Ohio?" Hertz says. "Normally, one of the advantages of marriage in this country is that, if you get married in one state, it's recognized in every other state. Well, that's not the case with Massachusetts' gay marriages or California's domestic partnerships. We don't know if other states are going to recognize them."

Even stranger, you don't need to be a California resident to register as a domestic partner in California; you can download the form and mail it in with a $10 processing fee.

"I joke with my clients that, because they can't really get married everywhere, they try to get half-married everywhere," says Hertz. "But if you register in California or Vermont and you live in Missouri, how do you get divorced? You may not be able to get divorced in California because you're not a resident, but you may not be able to get divorced in Missouri because they may not recognize the status. However, you may want to get divorced because you don't want to be liable for the other person's debts."

To further complicate matters, financial companies, from stock brokerages to banks and credit card companies, want both signatures to open an account.

"In California, for example, I can't open up an investment account as a married person without my spouse signing off because there is equal management and control in California community property," says Hertz. "That means I can't unilaterally sell my house or close my stock account, even if it's just in my name, because the bank or lender or title company wants to know if it's community property."

Hertz predicts the country will ultimately recognize same-sex unions for one very compelling reason: It's too cumbersome not to.

"In a national economy, the notion that there are 10 different kinds of marital statuses with uncertain portability is so unworkable that I think we're going to end up legalizing gay marriage simply because the complexity of this patchwork-quilt system will just be unbearable and unworkable."

As for the seemingly endless permutations of community property law, Clifford prefers to see the upside.

"God knows, it keeps domestic relations lawyers employed. A friend of mine used to say that the California divorce law should have been called the 'lawyer's relief act.'"

Jay MacDonald is a contributing editor based in Mississippi.

Bankrate.com's corrections policy -- Posted: April 5, 2006
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