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Iowa Offers Legal Marriage
by Demian
© May 12, 2009, Demian

On April 3, 2009, Iowa became the 4th American state to offer full, legal marriage to same-sex couples. The law became effective on April 27, 2009.

Iowa’s constitution promises equal treatment and protects all citizens with the right to legally marry the individual of their choice. The words “husband,” “wife” or “spouse,” or some form of the words “marriage” or “marry” appear in more than 540 sections of the state’s laws.
History - The Suit’s Couples
Varnum v. Brien Case History
License Procedures
Legal Marriage Rights and Responsibilities
Warnings: Marriage Law Pitfalls
Links to Official State Instructions


On December 13, 2005, Varnum v. Brien was filed on behalf of six couples by Lambda Legal.

The Iowa Varnum Couples
  • Trish Hyde, 40, and Kate Varnum, 31
    Together since 2000.
  • Larry Hoch, 63, and David Twombley, 64
    Together since 2001.
  • Dawn, 37, and Jen BarbouRoske, 35
    Together since 1990. They formed Proud Families, a play group for gay and lesbian families, and both serve as Girl Scouts leaders. They have two children, Breeanna, 3, and McKinley, 7.
  • Reva Evans, 31, and Ingrid Olson, 27
    Together since 1997.
  • Chuck Swaggerty, 33, and Jason Morgan, 35
    Together since 1997.
  • Bill Musser, 47, and Otter Dreaming, 48
    Together since 2001. They are licensed foster parents.
Photos courtesy of Lambda Legal

Varnum v. Brien Case History
  • December 2005 - Lambda Legal files marriage lawsuit in Iowa district court.

    Varnum v. Brien was opened on December 13, 2007. Attorneys in case were Camilla Taylor, Kenneth D. Upton, Jr. from Lambda Legal, and co-counsel/cooperating attorneys were Dennis Johnson of Dorsey and Whitney in Des Moines, Iowa.

    On behalf of six same-sex couples who sought to marry in Iowa, the lawsuit argued that, under the equal protection and due process guarantees of the Iowa Constitution, it is unlawful to bar same-sex couples from marrying.

    The couples in this case have been together between five and more than 16 years. Three of the couples are raising children, others are planning families, and all want the responsibilities of marriage, and the protections only marriage can provide.

    Camilla Taylor, Staff Attorney in Lambda Legal’s Midwest Regional Office in Chicago:

    “This lawsuit is about fairness and equality. Same-sex couples all over Iowa are devoted and love each other. Since marriage is the way the government provides protection, support and respect for families, it is only fair that these couples be able to marry.”
  • April 2006 - 26 state legislators, represented by an anti-gay legal organization, file to intervene as defendants.
  • August 2006 - The court denies the legislators’ application, ruling that none of the legislators had interests in the case sufficient for intervention.
  • August 2006 - Plaintiffs Party moves to amend their petition in order to add three of their children as parties, among other amendments.
  • September 2006 - Defendant resisted plaintiffs’ motion.
  • November 2006 - Defendant moves for summary judgment.
  • December 2006 - Court grants plaintiffs’ motion to amend, including the motion to add three of their children as parties.
  • January 2007 - Plaintiffs file resistance to defendant’s motion for summary judgment and cross-moved for summary judgment as well. Plaintiffs also file affidavits from leading child development and other experts who explain the need for marriage rights for same-sex couples. In support of plaintiffs’ summary judgment motion, Iowa faith leaders, scholars and religious groups file friend-of-the-court brief, as does the Iowa Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a group of Iowa historians and law professors.
  • August 30, 2007 - A 63-page decision was issued by the Iowa District Court for Polk County, stating that same-sex couples must be allowed to marry based on the Iowa Constitution’s guarantee of equal treatment under the law.
           Click to read the 63-page PDF file: Iowa District Court Finding, August 30, 2007
  • April 3, 2009 - This case finally won the legal right for same-sex couples to marry with a unanimous state supreme court finding.

License Procedures

Two people are eligible to marry in Iowa if they are:

  • 18 or older - parental consent needed for 16-17-year olds.
  • Not already legally married to someone else or each other.
  • Not closely related to each other - cannot be cousins.
  • Legally competent to enter into a civil contract.
You need to:
  • Obtain a marriage license at a County Registrar of Vital Statistics within the County Recorder’s office.
  • Be physically present at a County Registrar’s office, or must have the form notarized.
  • Have proof of identity — photo ID and Social Security number — for either a County Registrar or a notary.
  • Pay $35 Registrar’s fee.
  • Need a “competent and disinterested person,” someone of legal age who is acquainted with both parties and unbiased regarding the pending marriage, to sign an affidavit on the back of the application.
  • Wait 3 business days for your license to be valid, unless you’ve received a waiver from a judge. If the license is not picked up within 6 months, the application is null and void.
  • Have a marriage ceremony in Iowa.
  • Have the marriage ceremony performed by a judge, magistrate, or associate judge of the Iowa Supreme Court, Iowa Court of Appeals, or Iowa District Court, or any individual ordained or designated as a leader of a religious faith.
  • The marriage couple must be physically present at the ceremony with an officiant and two (18 or older) witnesses - all of whom must sign the marriage certificate.
  • Have your officiant file your certificate with the County Registrar of Vital Records within 15 days.
  • No blood or other tests are required for a marriage license.
  • Common Law marriage is legal for the purposes of filing income taxes (Administrative Rule, Chapter 39 [701]) and property tax exemptions (Administrative Rule, Chapter 73 [701]).
  • Since it is now legal for same-sex coules to be married, it now seems likely that common-law marriage would also be available, making it the only state to allow this status for same-sex partners.
Legal Marriage Rights and Responsibilities

Sample Rights

  • Emergency medical care and hospital visitation
  • Economic protections upon death of a spouse, such as inheritance rights
  • Burial, autopsies, and disposition of remains
  • Wrongful death and other kinds of claims that depend upon spousal status
  • Receive workers’ compensation benefits if a spouse dies in the workplace
  • Health insurance and pension benefits for spouses of public employees
  • May file joint state tax returns, take spousal deductions on state income taxes, and receive tax benefits when transferring interests in property
  • Separation, divorce, and caring for any children of the couple
  • Liability for your spouse’s debts
  • Limitations on your ability to make decisions about your property and who will inherit from you
  • Obligations to provide support for your spouse during both marriage and divorce
Warnings: Marriage Law Pitfalls

Civil Union

If you are already legally married elsewhere, you cannot be married again in Iowa. However, it is not clear how Iowa would treat a Civil Union.


The armed services would likely consider marriage to a same-sex spouse as grounds for a discharge under its discriminatory policies towards lesbian and gay personnel.


Since the federal system does not recognize same-sex couples, or their legal marriages, getting married does not offer a route to applying for immigration.

There currently is no process that allows a same-sex partner to sponsor a partner for immigration to the U.S. There is no process that allows an individual to sponsor their same-sex partner to become a "Permanent Legal Resident." In the eyes of the American federal system, same-sex couples are legal strangers.

In the Event of a Couple Parting

Iowa divorce requires 1 year residency. Because many states refuse to recognize a same-sex marriage license, divorce would likely be impossible unless at least one partner still lived in Iowa.

If you live in a state that does not honor your marriage — which may not be determined until requesting something usually triggered by a marriage license — the state courts will also be unlikely to grant you a divorce.

The ability to divorce is critical. Besides the emotional reasons to dissolve a no longer functioning union, there are legal entanglements to consider. For instance, should one of the partners form a new relationship, they would not be able to sign up their new partner for workplace benefits. Most employers require an affidavit that stipulates that the partners are not married to anyone else or have another domestic partner.

Non-Iowa Residents

Partners who are not Iowa citizens may be married in Iowa.

However, because many state laws forbid recognition of another state’s same-sex legal marriage license, a civil marriage license would have little or no legal meaning.

Also, it is possible that a Iowa couple would get married, then move elsewhere. While it is certain that the federal system will refuse to recognize the license, it is now known that most states will likewise refuse to recognize it.

Links to Official State Instructions

        List of Iowa Counties

        Johnson County, Iowa - Marriage License Information

Governments that offer Full Legal Marriage

Netherlands (2001)
Belgium (2003)
Canada (2005)
Spain (2005)
South Africa (2005)
Norway (2009)
Sweden (2009)
Iceland (2010)
Argentina (2010)
Portugal (2010)
Denmark (2012)
France (2013)
New Zealand (2013)
Brazil (2013)
Uruguay (2013)
New Zealand (2013)
United Kingdom
(England, Wales, Scotland) (2013)
Luxembourg (2014)
Finland (2014)
Ireland (2015)
United States (2015)
Colombia (2016)
Germany (2017)
Taiwan (2017)
Malta (2017)
Australia (2017)
US States & Territories
U.S. Supreme Court, June 26, 2015 Ruling: All U.S. States must allow same-sex couples legal marriage.

Massachusetts (2004)
California (2008)
Connecticut (2008)
Iowa (2009)
Vermont (2009)
New Hampshire (2009)
District of Columbia (2009)
New York (2011)
Maine (2012)
Washington (2012)
Maryland (2013)
Rhode Island (2013)
Delaware (2013)
Minnesota (2013)
Illinois (2013)
Utah (2013)
New Jersey (2013)

Hawaii (2013)
New Mexico (2013)
Michigan (2014) - stayed pending legal challenge
Oregon (2014)
Wisconsin (2014) Arkansas (2014) - stayed pending legal challenge
Pennsylvania (2014)
Indiana (2014)
Nevada (2014)
Virginia (2014)
Oklahoma (2014)
Idaho (2014)
West Virginia (2014)
Alaska (2014)
Arizona (2014)
Wyoming (2014)
Kansas (2014) - stayed pending legal challenge
Florida (2014)
Colorado (2014)
North Carolina (2014)
South Carolina (2014)
Montana (2014)
Alabama (2015)
Native American Tribes

Coquille Tribe, Oregon (2009)
Mashantucket Pequot, Connecticut (2011)
Suquamish Tribe, Washington (2011)
Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Washington (2013)
Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, Minnesota (2013)
Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, Michigan (2013)
Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, Michigan (2013)
Santa Ysabel Tribe, California (2013)
Confederated Tribes of the Colville Nation, Washington (2013)
Cheyenne, Oklahoma (2013)
Arapaho, Oklahoma (2013)
Leech Lake Tribal Court, Minnesota (2013)
Puyallup Tribe, Washington (2914)
Wind River Indian Reservation, Wyoming (2014)
Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, Michigan (2014)
Colville Confederated Tribes, Washington (2014)
Central Council of Tlingit, Alaska (2015)
Haida Indian Tribes, Alaska (2015)

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