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[whitespace] Honeymoon's Over

The next wave: gay divorce

By Allie Gottlieb

'NEARLY EVERYONE marries," the U.S. Census Bureau announced in its 2002 report on divorce, an updated version of the 1996 page turner "Number, Timing, and Duration of Marriages and Divorces." San Francisco's flashy new mayor, Gavin Newsom, sure thinks everyone deserves the chance, opening his clerk's office to same-sex partners who hope to be hitched for life.

But life for married couples, as we all know, does not always end in death. Half of all marriages end in divorce, the Census Bureau's buzz-kill division adds. So, while humans everywhere debate whether gays should dine at the straight table, Bay Area divorce attorneys might as well go ahead and crack open the champagne.

"All the family lawyers see weddings as inventory," cracks Judith Harding, a San Francisco attorney and certified family law expert. She confirms that breaking up isn't only hard for heterosexuals. In fact, she's handling four same-sex partnership dissolutions. More are undoubtedly on the way.

Since the same-sex nuptials began just before Valentine's Day, 3,344 gay couples and three straight ones were married in San Francisco as of Thursday, Feb. 26. Simple math has it that roughly more than 1,400 couples will be divorced by 2019, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, which estimates 43 percent of first marriages end in separation or divorce within 15 years.

Adding to the gay-divorce equation is a state Assembly bill snuck into law last year while everyone was immersed in recall mania. Assembly Bill 205, effective next New Year's Day, guarantees a certain level of equality to same-sex couples and other unmarried pairs. The law provides community property and child custody rights to domestic partners. It also means that people registered with the secretary of state as domestic partners have to officially dissolve their relationship when they break up, "to obtain a judgment of dissolution or nullity of the domestic partnership," similar to a divorce. Otherwise they remain financially obligated to each other--with exes still nagging over stupid (or wise) investments or haggling over care of the kids. The state's registry clocks 25,364 domestic partner couples in California as of last week.

"We're thinking we need prenuptial agreements for these people," Harding says.

On the bright side, divorces mean cash for the courts. Each divorce costs at least $292.50 for a petition of dissolution, legal separation or nullity. Each court motion comes with a $36.30 price tag. Custody battles cost more, and so on.

Then there are attorney fees. Harding says she knows no self-respecting colleague who charges less than $250 per hour to handle a divorce. Some specialized divorce attorneys charge $400 or more an hour.

Given the likelihood that a first-timer's new marriage will go bad, everyone should know the rules for annulling a marriage and for the simplest divorce method. The faster, easier, cheaper divorce is called a joint summary dissolution, which does not require the services of a lawyer.

This short cut requires that a couple not be married more than five years and not have children together nor combined debt over $4,000.

Legal annulment is a near-impossibility. The couple needs an impeccable excuse, such as having gotten married by accident (kidnapped by cult, tricked by drunken friends) or by insanity (spouse is older sister, for example, or already married).

No San Francisco couples have yet filed for an annulment or divorce, Valerie McGrew, the manager of Superior Court, said last week. She asked the court staff to tell her when a gay couple files to split up, because she is unsure how the state-run court system will handle it.

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From the March 3-10, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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