Road to Same-sex Marriage in New Jersey

As of October 13, 2013, gay marriage is now a legal option for same-sex couples in New Jersey following the State’s withdrawal of its appeal of the Superior Court’s decision in Garden State Equality v. Dow. This follows New Jersey’s enactment of the Domestic Partnership Act in 2004 and the legalization of Civil Unions following the N.J. Supreme Court’s 2006 ruling in Lewis v. Harris, and the enactment of the New Jersey Civil Union Law in 2007.

Domestic Partnerships:

New Jersey’s Domestic Partnership Act went into effect on July 10, 2004. This law allowed same-sex couples to become certified domestic partners which afforded couples rights similar to married couples relating to hospital visitation and health care decision making, state tax law treatment, state inheritance laws and with regard to a partner’s health and pension benefits if the partner is employed by the state. Domestic Partnerships, however, did not extend similar benefits to non-state employers, did not provide for alimony rights. Palimony and property rights are available only if the partners have entered into an agreement providing for same and are governed by the terms of such agreement. The Domestic Partnership Act was modified by the Civil Union Act that went into effect in February 2007. Currently the Domestic Partnership Act is still available for both same-sex and opposite sex couples 62 years of age and older. New Jersey still recognizes and enforces Domestic Partnerships that were entered into prior to February 2007.

Civil Unions:

In Lewis v. Harris, 188 N.J. 416 (2006) the New Jersey Supreme Court held that is was unconstitutional under the New Jersey State Constitution to provide for “unequal dispensation of rights and benefits” to same sex couples and heterosexual couples. As a result of this ruling, the legislature enacted the Civil Union Act that went into effect in February 2007. Couples entering into civil unions could avail themselves of nearly all of the same rights and privileges afforded to married couples under New Jersey law, however, federal benefits were excluded under the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Same sex couples who had previously entered into a civil union now had the choice to remain in a domestic partnership or enter into a valid civil union with the same partner.

Same-sex Marriage:

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling the case of United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S. , 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013) struck down Section 3 the Defense of Marriage Age as unconstitutional in June 2013. The Supreme Court held that is was unconstitutional to deny federal benefits to same-sex couples. In September of 2013, Judge Mary C. Jacobsen ruled in the case of Garden State Equality v. Dow that based on the Supreme Court’s findings in the Windsor matter, New Jersey was required to allow same-sex couples to marry. Governor Christie appealed the ruling and requested a stay. The New Jersey Supreme Court denied the request for the stay allowing for the issuance of marriage licenses to same sex couples and Governor Christie withdrew the appeal. Garden State Equality v. Dow, 216 N.J. 314 (2013).

As a result, same-sex couples who were previously in a civil union may marry their civil union partner and convert their civil union into marriage without dissolving the civil union. However, civil unions do not automatically become marriages. Couples must obtain a marriage license to convert a civil union into a marriage. Same-sex marriages entered into in other states will be recognized in New Jersey as well. As same-sex marriages have the same rights as heterosexual marriages, the laws for divorce, alimony and equitable distribution also apply.