Back in April 2009, a petition for divorce was filed in the Worcester Division of the Probate and Family Court Department. The case was Todd J. Elia-Warnken vs. Richard A. Elia, a same-sex couple that got married in Massachusetts and was now seeking divorce.
It started off as routine divorce proceedings, but quickly turned into a landmark case involving polygamy, same-sex laws and inter-state jurisdiction. The case was taken up on appeal by the Massachusetts Judicial Supreme Court.
The initial divorce petition was filed by Todd J. Elia-Warnken. Afterwards, Richard A. Elia filed his own divorce petition. The facts of the case are that they got married on October 17, 2005 in Worchester. Elia-Warnken filed for divorce on April 15, 2009. Richard Elia responded with a counterclaim for divorce filed on January 12, 2010.
Sometime after this, Richard Elia discovered that Elia-Warnken had an undissolved civil union in Vermont. In March 2010, Richard Elia asked the court to dismiss the case against him and grant his own counterclaim for divorce on the grounds that the marriage in Massachusetts was void.
The Massachusetts Judicial Supreme Court, of its own initiative, decided to move the case from the appeals court to itself. They ruled that no marriage had taken place, so there could be no divorce. In doing so, the court cited the need to look at same-sex laws in Vermont and polygamy laws in Massachusetts.
Vermont law provides civil unions with the same protections, benefits and responsibilities as a civil marriage. Under Massachusetts law, statutes dealing with polygamy have to be treated in a "gender-neutral" manner. Thus, the court decided to treat the plaintiff's civil union in the same manner as any other out-of-State marriage recognized by Massachusetts law under principles of comity.
Since the marriage was declared void, there is now no question of division of property under the state's divorce law that requires equitable distribution or property.