In a decision long in the making, a New Jersey Family Court Judge held, in a published trial court decision Groh v. Groh, that “same-sex couples can legally dissolve their civil unions based upon irreconcilable differences.” Although having an Appellate Court publish a decision in support of this holding or having the legislature amend the applicable statute would be preferable, for now, this decision lends support and credence to a practice that has been ongoing for the past few years.
The issue as to the grounds for dissolution of civil unions and the lack of statutory authority to grant a dissolution on the grounds of irreconcilable differences largely resulted from issues of timing in the passing and implementation of the relevant laws.
Specifically, after the New Jersey Supreme Court in Lewis v. Harris held that “unequal dispensation of rights and benefits to committed same-sex partners can no longer be tolerated under our State Constitution” and that same-sex couples in committed relationships should have rights, benefits and responsibilities similar to those enjoyed by married heterosexual couples, the legislature, on December 21, 2006, enacted the New Jersey Civil Union Act. At the time, there was no “no-fault” (i.e., irreconcilable differences) grounds for divorce in New Jersey, such that the Civil Union Act did not contain such a provision for dissolution of a civil union, while providing virtually identical grounds for dissolution of a civil union as existed at the time for dissolution of a marriage. Of particular note, the Civil Union Act did contain a statute which stated that whenever any laws make reference to marriage they shall apply equally to civil unions.
Only a month after the enactment of the New Jersey Civil Union Act (which was not to go into effect until February 19, 2007), on January 20, 2007 the no-fault ground for divorce was added to the statutory causes of action to the dissolution of marriage statute, although same was not specifically applied or incorporated into the Civil Union Act. However, the Governor’s public signing statement and a subsequent declaration from the AOC confirmed that the intent was for the no-fault grounds for divorce to apply to the dissolution of a civil union. Unfortunately, despite this being accepted in practice, as the plain language of the statute has never been amended and no published opinions existed to clearly support this practice, confusion has remained.
Fortunately, with the Trial Court’s published decision, a step has been taken to ensure that, moving forward, the public will recognize and understand that a civil union can be dissolved based upon irreconcilable differences, despite the lack of clear statutory authority for same.