06/28/2011 12:32 pm ET | Updated Aug 28, 2011

First Comes Marriage, then.....

The victory in New York State is incredibly important in the struggle to extend access to legal marriage for all same-sex couples. New York is the home to nearly 50,000 same-sex couples, and the lack of marriage or its equivalent (civil union or domestic partnership) has made it difficult for lesbian and gay couples to secure their legal rights in that state. Moreover, the patchwork of inconsistent laws in the the surrounding New York City region (civil union in New Jersey, marriage in Connecticut, no options in Pennsylvania) has made it very onerous for couples trying to organize their financial and legal lives.

New York City is also home to hundreds of major corporations, who now will need to adjust their operations to include same-sex couples in the array of benefits provided to customers and employees. This will force the corporate leaders to confront the messy inconsistencies resulting from the lack of federal recognition of same-sex married couples. As a result, it's likely that a new batch of opinion leaders (including lawyers, accountants and financial planners) will join the campaign to obtain full legal recognition on the federal level.

In the long term, however, the most dramatic impact will be on the lives of the couples that get married. And in the end the biggest effects will be on those whose relationships end in dissolution or death. New York has some of the most complicated marriage and divorce rules -- and has been the slowest to reform their rules to adjust to modern life. New York has finally eliminated the fault requirement for most divorces (to the chagrin of those who might have delighted in a "gay divorce court" battle over fault), but the financial and legal consequences for many same-sex couples will not be simple.

This is why it is essential that every couple considering marriage learn what the rules are for their situation -- and decide for themselves whether getting married is the right thing to do. The right to marry is not the duty to marry -- and it comes with as many responsibilities as it does rights. Generally speaking it makes each spouse liable for the other's debts, and imposes a sharing of post-marriage assets between the spouses, even if the absence of a contract between the partners. The higher earning spouse can be required to pay alimony in the event of a break-up, and each spouse is generally required to bequeath some of their assets to the other spouse. Long term gay couples who have been together for decades before getting married means their legal and financial lives are even more complex than traditional straight married couples. Opting out of these rules is not simple, and generally requires a pre-marital agreement that meets New York State's rigorous agreement standards.

So by all means we should all celebrate this political and legal victory. Hopefully it will result in an abundance of happy honored couples celebrating their love. Let's hope it doesn't simply result in more work for the already busy New York divorce attorneys!

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