It finally sank in for Suzanne Rotondo when Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett announced Wednesday he wouldn’t contest a federal judge’s ruling striking down the state’s ban on gay marriage: She could finally get a divorce.
The Keystone State was the last holdout in the Northeast to recognize gay marriage.
“It feels like my birthday,” said Rotondo, 45, who lives in Philadelphia. “I just feel this excitement. Of course there’s no ‘Yay, divorce,’ but it’s a victory for being able to have agency, have a say in your own destiny.”
Rotondo married her partner a decade ago in Massachusetts on their 10th anniversary, which happened to be the first day Massachusetts allowed same-sex couples to wed. At the time, they had a 1-year-old together.
The couple eventually moved to Philadelphia, where Rotondo went to graduate school and started a business, and in 2008, the two women came to the conclusion: Their marriage wasn’t working out.
They decided to divorce, but were startled to find out that because Pennsylvania did not recognize their marriage, it would not grant them a divorce. They couldn’t go to another state because most other states require that at least one partner live in a state for six months or more before the couple could be granted a divorce.
So they stayed married, even as they moved apart, split custody of their daughter and met other people.
Rotondo has been with another woman for five years. They own a house together and recently traveled to the Middle East together. To even meet with an attorney to write living wills in advance of their trip, Rotondo’s wife had to sign a waiver allowing Rotondo to meet with counsel.
Their daughter recently told Rotondo she would come to a rally advocating for her moms’ freedom to divorce.
“It’s been a little confusing; there’s something that feels not clean or clear about it,” Rotondo said.
But now, after a federal judge ruled Tuesday that Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional and Corbett said he wouldn’t appeal the ruling, Rotondo is finally free to divorce.
Same-sex couples who want out of their marriages and have been separated for more than two years could be divorced as soon as about two months from now, said Margaret Klaw, a Philadelphia family lawyer who works with same-sex couples. As long as there are no economic claims to be resolved, one spouse simply needs to file an affidavit saying that the couple have been separated for more than two years and that one member of the couple has lived in Pennsylvania for at least six months, and the paperwork begins, she said.
“It will be interesting to see how many divorces are filed by same-sex couples in Pennsylvania,” Klaw said. “I think there’s going be a big rush.”
Klaw’s phone began ringing soon after Tuesday’s ruling. She’s going to help two such couples divorce.
It’s been a long slog for Pennsylvania couples, who watched as the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, extending federal benefits to same-sex couples, and as the U.S. Treasury Department said it would allow same-sex couples to file joint tax returns.
Over the last year, same-sex marriage also became legal in Pennsylvania neighbors New Jersey and Delaware. Even as they cheered these developments, same-sex couples in Pennsylvania could not divorce.
Before the court ruling, Rotondo was getting ready to move her business to Massachusetts and to live there for two weeks a month to establish residency so should could get a divorce.
She acknowledges she was getting sick of waiting: When she first found out in 2008 she could’t get divorced, she thought that someone would figure out a work-around. But none of the options presented to her -- registering her business in New Jersey, lying about her residence -- didn’t seem right.
“I didn’t want to do anything illegal; I just wanted a legal way to do it,” she said. “There just weren’t good options.”
Only a few states, including Delaware, Vermont and Maryland, have waived residency requirements for same-sex couples who want to divorce in their states. Wyoming and Colorado have started granting divorces to same-sex couples, even though they do not allow same-sex marriage.
Same-sex couples had tried to fight the law in court.
Carole Ann Kern was married to her partner, Robin Lynn Taney, in Massachusetts in 2009. But when she filed for divorce four months later, a court intervened, because both parties were women. Judge Scott. E. Lash ruled in 2010 that he could not grant Kern a divorce because “relief under the Divorce Code can only be obtained by parties who are recognized to be married.”
He recommended she request that the court void her marriage, since divorce was not legal.