Monday, June 2, 2014

The New State of Marriage in the Commonwealth


 
In our daily lives, most of us go about our business without a second thought as to how pervasive our laws can be.  Those of us in the legal profession perhaps have a different perspective, with a keen understanding of just how a single legal doctrine can change millions of lives.  Recently, the opinion of Judge John E. Jones, III in Whitewood v. Wolf, No. 1:13-CV-1861, 2014 WL 2058105, at *1 (M.D. Pa. May 20, 2014), provided a powerful illustration of just how far-reaching a legal decision can be.

Most people know by now that Judge Jones struck down Pennsylvania’s statute banning same-sex marriage.  But few people may have stopped to realize the vast implications of such a change.  Although the arguments both for and against same-sex marriage have been thoroughly hashed and rehashed on both sides, now that Pennsylvania effectively has same-sex marriage, Pennsylvania lawyers will spend the next few years with its many legal implications.

The most intuitive change will be in the realm of divorce law.  Now that same sex-couples can marry, it follows that they can divorce.  How will the law deal with all of the cohabitation agreements which were entered into when same-sex marriage was illegal?  What will the implications be for pensions, and for taxes?  Now it is not uncommon for a divorced wife to retake her maiden name after the divorce.  Will same-sex couples be treated any differently if they divorce?

More broadly, how will the institution of same-sex marriage impact custody law and adoption practice?  How about real estate law?  Estate planning?  Probate?  How will doctors and hospitals treat same-sex couples in medical decision making?  Will there be any difficulty now if a same-sex spouse makes a claim for fatal claim workers’ compensation benefits or for loss of consortium in a personal injury case?

What impact will these legal changes have on family formation, in the context of assisted reproduction, gestational surrogacy, and artificial insemination?  Will we now shy away from alternative family arrangements for same-sex couples who are not married?  Will there be a stigma against couples who want to have children, but who choose not to marry even though they can?

It is questions like these that shine a light on how the smallest legal changes can broadly alter the tapestry of our existence.  These questions, and their ultimate answers, draw into focus the nobility of the legal profession.  As lawyers assist all people, straight and gay, bisexual and transgender, through the twists and turns of their changing legal rights, we can be proud and humbled that collectively we shape how the law impacts our lives.  Every so often it is worthwhile to step back and look at the big picture, and to reflect on how wonderful it is that we live in a nation governed by the rule of law, where such momentous legal changes will have an impact on countless lives for generations to come.

 

Levi S. Wolf, Esquire is a shareholder in the law firm of Wolf, Baldwin & Associates, P.C. with offices in Pottstown, Reading, and West Chester.  He is the firm’s managing attorney, and focuses his practice on workers’ compensation law and family law.  Mr. Wolf can be reached at 610-323-7436 or by e-mail to Lwolf@wolfbaldwin.com.