Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Ocean County, Family Part
Approved for Publication January 20, 2015.
John J. Rizzo for plaintiff ( Geldhauser, Shiffman and Rizzo, attorneys).
Marianna C. Pontoriero for defendant ( Pontoriero & Pontoriero, attorneys).
[439 N.J.Super. 187] L.R. JONES, J.S.C.
This case presents a legal issue regarding same-sex rights and statutory interpretation of N.J.S.A. 2A:34-2.1, which sets forth a [439 N.J.Super. 188] list of statutory grounds for dissolution of a civil union. Absent from this list is the no-fault ground of irreconcilable differences. Notwithstanding same, and for the reasons set forth in this opinion, the court holds that same-sex couples can legally dissolve their civil unions based upon irreconcilable differences.
In 2008, plaintiff and defendant entered into a civil union. Five years later, plaintiff filed a complaint and defendant filed a counterclaim, each seeking a judgment dissolving the union on the no-fault ground of irreconcilable differences. The parties, who were each represented by experienced matrimonial counsel, amicably resolved all of their other pending issues by entering into a detailed written settlement agreement. On March 12, 2014, the parties and their attorneys appeared before the court, jointly seeking to conclude the proceedings via dual judgment of dissolution. N.J.S.A. 2A:34-2.1, however, does not explicitly include irreconcilable differences as an applicable legal ground for dissolution of a civil union.
On October 25, 2006, the New Jersey Supreme Court held in Lewis v. Harris, 188 N.J. 415, 423, 908 A.2d 196 (2006), 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 court further held that the Legislature should, within six months, enact legislation supporting and guaranteeing such rights. Id. at 463.
Two months later, on December 21, 2006, in direct response to Lewis, the Legislature enacted the New Jersey Civil Union Act, (the " Act" ), N.J.S.A. 37:1-28 to -36, which then-Governor Jon Corzine signed into law. While the state did not at that time legalize same-sex marriages, the Act formally established the right [439 N.J.Super. 189] of same-sex couples to enter into civil unions, a legislatively created domestic status, which provided certain new statutory rights to same-sex couples, short of the right to formally marry each other. Significantly, while the Act was signed on December 21, 2006, it did not take effect immediately, but rather on " the 60th day after the enactment," i.e., February 19, 2007, so that the Commissioner of Health and Senior Services and the Director of the Administrative Office of the Courts had the opportunity to " take such anticipatory administrative action in advance as shall be necessary for the implementation of the Act."
The Act created statutory authority for the forming of a civil union between same-sex partners. At the same time, the Legislature enacted N.J.S.A. 2A:34-2.1, which provided for legal dissolution of such union. Specifically, N.J.S.A. 2A:34-2.1(a)-(g) authorized the family courts of this state to ...