One month of marriage equality in PA

This Friday marks the first month of marriage equality in Pennsylvania.

On May 20, Judge John E. Jones’s ruling overturning the state’s ban on marriage equality made Pennsylvania the 19th state to sanction same-sex marriage.

One major change spurred by the ruling is that married same-sex couples will be eligible to access health benefits from employer plans that extend to spouses.

Same-sex couples who married out of state prior to May 20 have 31days to bring their marriage certificate to their human-resources representative in order to add their spouse for what is considered a change-of-life event. Newly married couples have 31 days from the date of their wedding to do so.

“People have to talk to their HR representative,” urged attorney Tiffany Palmer, of Jerner & Palmer, P.C. “Many bigger employers were already recognizing same-sex marriages, so this is more of an issue for private employers.”

Information on adding a same-sex spouse to a city health plan was detailed for city employees in a memo from the Office of Human Resources dated June 5, which was included in the following week’s paystubs. The office is also working to communicate policy updates to the city’s unions.

Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations executive director Rue Landau said she was pleased with how the city was responding to the law change.

“For the city, it’s an ongoing process with multiple layers and multiple departments,” Landau said. “But all the agencies are working to make sure that anything we need to change around the issue of marriage equality is as smooth as possible. So I’m happy with the progress.”

Palmer noted questions about policy changes have abounded in the past month.

“We have fielded many, many, many calls,” she said, about such topics as real-estate ownership and estate-planning.

Most calls have been about divorce for same-sex couples who were legally wed out of state and who can now divorce in Pennsylvania.

“Couples are no longer ‘wedlocked,’ stuck in marriages they don’t want to be in anymore, so that’s a huge, huge change for people,” Palmer said. “We’ve filed four divorces already and have three more pending in Philadelphia and Bucks counties.”

Another area of concern has been adoption.

Palmer said her firm has been working with the state Department of Health to ascertain whether the state will list both same-sex spouses’ names on a birth certificate without an adoption.

“We had our first same-sex couple legally married to one another give birth and they’ve not received the birth certificate yet — it usually takes about a month for the Department of Health to issue it — but the early indications we received are that they will not put both names on the birth certificate,” Palmer said. “So we’re working internally with the Department of Health to find out if they are going to issue any changes in their regulations or forms. But the way their forms for the issuance of birth certificates are does not contemplate or anticipate a child conceived by two women through assisted reproduction.”

What is certain, however, is that married same-sex couples will no longer have to file second-parent adoption but rather a step-parent adoption, which eliminates the need for a generally costly home study.

“We finalized the first one in Chester County and have many more pending,” Palmer said. “These couples previously had to pay a lot for the home-study process but adopting the child of a legal spouse is now a much more streamlined and less-expensive process.”

Since that day, the Philadelphia Register of Wills Office has issued 230 licenses to same-sex couples.

Caren Berger, deputy in charge of litigation at Orphans’ Court of Philadelphia, noted that the number of same-sex applicants has tapered off since the initial ruling. The decision came down on a late Tuesday afternoon, and the office stayed open later that night, processing 18 licenses for same-sex couples. The following day, 67 same-sex couples were issued licenses.

“After that, it went back to 17, 12, 15 for the rest of the week,” Berger said. “Then we had numbers like seven, three, 10.”

On June 5, just one same-sex couple applied.

“The first week, there was definitely a greater volume, and I think it’s essentially because after everybody realized that there wasn’t going to be an appeal, the urgency dissipated,” Berger said. “People can now be leisurely and take their time.”

Twenty licenses were issued to same-sex couples May 21 in Bucks County, the first day possible, as the courthouse was closed May 20. Bucks Register of Wills staffer Rebecca Albritton said the office kept track of the same-sex licenses that first day but has since stopped.

“We kept separate statistics but going forward we felt there was no need to keep separate statistics; just in the sense of everything being equal, there was no reason,” explained Albritton, who noted that the office has remained “extremely busy” as a result of Jones’ ruling.

In Montgomery County, 16 same-sex couples, eight male and eight female, applied for licenses from May 27-31. The issuance of licenses was delayed in the county, as Register of Wills D. Bruce Hanes was under court order to not issue licenses to same-sex couples — a measure that was lifted one week after Jones’ ruling — because of his action last summer issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

The office sends the marriage stats to the state at the end of each month, so June’s numbers will be available later this month.

Register of Wills chief deputy Joan Nagle said office staff has been keeping handwritten records of the number of same-sex couples, as their database has not yet been updated to reflect the new law.

“Although the titles on the applications have been changed so it’s ‘Applicant 1 and 2’ instead of ‘Bride and Groom,’ the software hasn’t been changed yet,” she said. “So our staff has to go back in and hand-correct for sex, so hopefully the Department of Health will let us know soon when the software can be updated. But right now we’re just manually correcting the report at the end of the month.”

Berger said the language changes for Philadelphia’s applications are pending.

“We’re still working on that but I can’t give a timeframe yet,” she said.

In related news, Jones this week denied the request of a county clerk from Schuylkill County who sought to put a stop to marriage equality in Pennsylvania.

On June 6, Theresa Santai-Gaffney submitted a motion to be named an intervenor in the case and filed a subsequent request for a stay, pending her pledged appeal. But, on Wednesday, Jones found Santai-Gaffney ineligible for such status.

Last week, attorneys from Hangley, Aronchick, Segal, Pudlin & Schiller and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, who together represented the plaintiff same-sex couples who filed the original case, filed a brief opposing Santai-Gaffney’s request.

The attorneys wrote that Santai-Gaffney’s duties are “purely ministerial” and she has no authority to deviate from Jones’ ruling or the state’s decision to abide by it.

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