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St. Petersburg women find love, marriage — and legal tangles

Rachel Jolley, left, and Charlotte Lambert of St. Petersburg were married in Connecticut in September. But in Florida, they could not get their new, hyphenated name on driver’s licenses.

Special to the Times

Rachel Jolley, left, and Charlotte Lambert of St. Petersburg were married in Connecticut in September. But in Florida, they could not get their new, hyphenated name on driver’s licenses.

ST. PETERSBURG — Rachel Jolley, 25, and Charlotte Lambert, 28, merged into Lambert-Jolley on a cool Connecticut evening in September.

They exchanged vows under a wooden trellis at Charlotte's grandparents' house. Orange leaves blew from trees and stuck to white gowns. Tiny pumpkins graced tables. Charlotte's grandmother cooked Italian food for 60. They danced into the night.

Back home in St. Petersburg, though, the afterglow dimmed. Rachel and Charlotte could not get their new hyphenated name on their driver's licenses.

Same-sex marriage is legal in Connecticut. The Social Security Administration officially accepted their new names. And Rachel's mother called a driver's license office, where someone there said, sure, bring in the marriage license.

But when Charlotte went to the counter, the clerk discovered that she and Rachel were wife and wife and turned them away. Florida law prohibits the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles or any other state agency from accepting same-sex marriage documents.

"It was embarrassing. It was like being treated like we were changing our name to Ochocinco,'' says Rachel, referring to NFL player Chad Johnson, who changed his name to the Spanish for 85, his jersey number. "As Americans, you would think you would be worried that someone has two different identities. Now I have a Social Security card that says one thing and a driver's license that says another.''

Florida law banning same-sex marriage was designed to prevent exactly such confusion, says John Grant, a former state senator from Tampa who introduced the legislation in 1997. A national patchwork of marriage rules creates problems, he says.

"My principal motivating fact was that (same-sex marriage) is simply wrong and flies in the face of the Judeo-Christian traditions of our American heritage,'' Grant says. "But secondarily, it also raises some extremely difficult practical applications. It is not something that should be taken lightly.''

The patchwork Grant spoke of certainly exists. Six states and the District of Columbia grant same-sex marriages, but the federal government and most other states specifically define marriage as between a man and woman.

As a result, couples who cross state lines face obstacles that go way beyond conflicting driver's licenses. Some are:

Federal taxes: Same-sex spouses cannot file jointly as a married couple, resulting in a higher tax burden.

Inheritance: Wills cannot cut a heterosexual spouse completely out of an estate without prior contractual agreement. Spouses are entitled to at least a one-third share, but if there's no will, the spouse gets at least half.

Same-sex spouses must write each other into their wills. Unlike straight spouses, the survivor must pay taxes on estates above $5 million.

State pensions: When teachers, firefighters and police officers die, Florida offers survivor benefits to heterosexual spouses.

Health benefits: Some employers offer health insurance to domestic partners, but unlike the case with heterosexual spouses, the IRS taxes those benefits as income.

Wrongful death: Only legal spouses and children under 25 can collect pain and suffering damages in wrongful death suits. Same-sex couples cannot sue.

Real estate: When a man and woman get divorced, one can take over sole ownership of a marital home without paying documentary stamp taxes on a quit-claim transfer. A same-sex couple would be taxed on the transfer, possibly topping $1,000 on a $300,000 house.

Health care: When people cannot make their own health decisions and have not left advance directives, Florida lets their spouses decide. Gay and lesbian couples can retain control by designating each other as health care surrogates, but they must do so before a coma sets in.

Child custody: Spouses are usually considered the legal parents of any child born during a marriage, no matter who the biological father is. A Connecticut woman whose wife bears a child has equal parental rights. But that ends if they move to Florida. The child loses all rights to visitation or support from the spouse without the biological tie.

Florida courts will recognize parental rights if same-sex couples adopt each other's children. Then, custody and support rulings follow the child's best interest, just as with paternity cases.

Divorce: The thorniest conundrum for same-sex couples might be getting divorced.

Though Florida does not recognize common law marriage, courts here will dissolve such marriages after they have been established in another state.

But many family practice lawyers question whether same-sex marriages qualify for a divorce here when Florida statutes and Constitution define marriage as only between a man and woman.

So far, no same-sex divorce case has reached the appellate level, so Florida has no legal precedent one way or another.

In theory, couples could divorce in a state where same-sex marriage is legal. But states all have residency requirements that would force them to move there first.

If a couple has adopted each other's children, Florida courts will sort out custody and support arrangements. And they can sign a contract in advance on splitting up finances and possessions — like a prenuptial agreement.

But if they cannot get divorced, they cannot remarry without committing bigamy.

"The thing we want the most is same-sex divorce,'' says Miami Beach lawyer Elizabeth Schwartz. "We need to have the court system assist us with equitable distribution of assets and asserting our parental rights.''

For now, Rachel Jolley and Charlotte Lambert are sticking with maiden names on their driver's licenses and Lambert-Jolley on credit cards, insurance cards and other documents.

They could acquire Lambert-Jolley licenses if they would go to court, pay $790 and legally change their last names. But "we don't have that kind of money,'' Rachel says. She works for an online news service and Charlotte is a cosmetologist.

Besides, Rachel says, paying for a name change seems like denying their commitment. "Part of us just doesn't want to accept that that's okay.''

Like other 20-somethings, they have not focused on sickness or mortality enough to arrange wills and health care documents. And don't even mention an advance contract about splitting income and possessions in case their relationship sours.

"We are hopelessly romantic,'' Rachel says. "I would not be thinking about getting married if I was thinking about getting divorced.''

This story includes information from St. Petersburg attorneys Michael Keane and Joseph W. Fleece III, Miami Beach attorney Elizabeth Schwartz and the Florida Department of Revenue.

St. Petersburg women find love, marriage — and legal tangles 11/25/11 [Last modified: Friday, November 25, 2011 10:43pm]
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