Divorce Without Marriage
How Miriam Sievers closed a civil-union loophole in state law
Published in 2024 Maryland Super Lawyers magazine
By Amy White on December 13, 2023
Miriam Sievers thought her law degree would be the pathway to policymaking. Instead, she helped make law.
Sievers was drawn to LGBTQ+ and reproductive justice issues in a pre-Obergefell Maryland. “Marriage equality was not yet a thing,” she says. “But from an intellectual standpoint, and from watching friends and loved ones whose families were specifically impacted by these types of law, my interests and skills dovetailed nicely within this niche.”
While Sievers says part of her practice is helping same-sex couples navigate the intricacies of adoption and family planning, it was her work in Sherman v. Rouse that set new precedent in LGBTQ+ law
The question at the heart of the case: Is a civil union in Vermont the same as a marriage in Maryland for the purposes of divorce?
“At the time, when my client and his former partner entered into their civil union in the early 2000s, the Vermont statute was very particular,” Sievers says. “It came out of a Vermont Supreme Court case that basically held that not having marriage equality was a violation of the Vermont Constitution. And while the highest court in Vermont said you don’t have to call it marriage—call it ‘purple unicorn,’ call it whatever you want—you do have to confer all the same rights and benefits. That’s how we got the Vermont Civil Union Statute.”
But could it get you a divorce in Maryland?
Sievers’ client, Scott Sherman, had entered into a civil union with Marty Rouse in Vermont. They adopted children, and never affirmatively entered into any other form of civil marriage. When Sherman filed for divorce years later, Rouse filed a motion to dismiss.
“Essentially, the response was, ‘You can’t divorce me—we’re not even married,’” Sievers says. “‘The court has no authority to a divorce, but it can hear the custody issue because we are both legal parents. But in terms of the alimony, marital property, use and possession, and all of these other things, well, you’re out of luck.’”
Prior to Sievers getting the case, the Circuit Court for Montgomery County held a hearing and opined the court did not have the authority to divorce the couple, or hear an action for divorce, and put the onus on the legislature to sort it out.
Sherman appealed, and Sievers took the matter to the Court of Special Appeals.
“The argument here was, if we look to the laws of other states out of deference and respect, and if it makes sense to follow those laws and it’s not repugnant to Maryland law and doesn’t violate public policy, then we can do it,” Sievers says. “We weren’t talking about using Vermont marital property laws to deal with the party’s marital property. It’s really just a question of, ‘Can we divorce them?’”
On March 2, 2020, the court ruled that the state would recognize the spousal relationship of a Vermont civil union with the same rights and protections afforded to Maryland residents in a marital relationship.
“This set really good precedent and closed a loophole, and I’m so happy no one will find themselves in this situation again,” says Sievers, who wonders, had the decision not come on the doorstep of COVID-19’s global shutdown, if the matter would have gotten more attention.
Right now, her attention is on clients who fear for their families amidst ever-tightening LGBTQ+ rights. “We are very much backsliding,” Sievers says. “I have clients who are very concerned. … The reproductive justice landscape is shifting dramatically for my clients. What that means for people who are trying to create families with assisted reproduction in same-sex couples is an area of concern. What happens with frozen embryos? How many can you use? Are we going to start running afoul of other ways to legislate people’s bodies and the ways in which we bring children into this world? I hesitate to offer more examples because I don’t want to inspire the imaginations of those who would wish to enact those things, but it is heartbreaking.”
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