On April 7, 2009, Vermont became the 5th American state to offer full, legal marriage to same-sex couples. The law became effective on September 1, 2009. It is the 1st state to create marriage equality by legislative vote, rather than by court order.
The right to legal marriage in Vermont began with a suit, which won. However, the court gave the legislature the option of providing legal marriage or a similar status, which resulted in Civil Unions.
Civil Unions: The Vermont Approach
Vermont - 1997 Landmark Suit
Three same-sex Vermont couples filed suit for the right to marry in Chittenden Superior Court, Burlington, Vermont, on July 22, 1997, in Baker v. State of Vermont. The couples, Stan Baker and Peter Harrigan, Nina Beck and Stacy Jolles, and Lois Farnham and Holly Puterbaugh, sued the State of Vermont as well as Shelburne, South Burlington and Milton, because the town clerks refused to issue marriage licenses to the couples.
After losing the first court hearing on December 19, 1997, the Vermont suit for legal marriage for same-sex couples got a mixed result in the final ruling on December 20, 1999.
[See Vermont Court Finding]
The court stated:
“We hold that the State is constitutionally required to extend to same-sex couples the common benefits and protections that flow from marriage under Vermont law. Whether this ultimately takes the form of inclusion within the marriage laws themselves or a parallel ‘domestic partnership’ system or some equivalent statutory alternative, rests with the Legislature. Whatever system is chosen, however, must conform with the constitutional imperative to afford all Vermonters the common benefit, protection, and security of the law.”
Based on the Vermont Constitution, the ruling establishes the necessity to treat all families alike — no matter what their make-up — but the ruling does not remedy the situation by immediately requiring the state to issue licenses. Instead it required the legislature to institute marriage or some kind of “domestic partnership” or “registered partnership law.”
The court states that a partnership law would “generally establish an alternative legal status to marriage for same-sex couples, impose similar formal requirements and limitations, create a parallel licensing or registration scheme, and extend all or most of the same rights and obligations provided by the law to married partners.”
The court did not consider that such a task is likely to be impossible. It was tried in Hawaii and miserably failed. Such a partnership law would need to duplicate more than 870 Vermont laws that are triggered by legal marriage.
Further, a partnership law (as opposed to a marriage license) would not be recognized by any other state, nor by the Federal system (including such rights as immigration and social security benefits).
Nor did the court consider the separate and unequal nature inherent in a domestic partner status.
[Please see Marrying Apartheid.]
Rather than offer legal marriage — the same procedure to protect families as is offered to opposite-sex couples — the Vermont legislature created a new law labeled “Civil Union.”
By designing a totally separate form of marriage, which could rightly be called “marriage light,” they created an apartheid. As the U.S. Supreme Court ruled regarding segregation, there is no such thing as separate and equal.
Civil Unions — effective July 1, 2000 except for provisions relating to insurance and taxes that become effective in 2001 — do not have any legal weight in the Federal sphere, and it is highly unlikely that any other state will honor the new, almost-but-not-quite-marital license.
The new status, however, does offer a vastly improved range of protections for same-sex couples never before available in the United States. Those couples who live in Vermont, once signed up as a civilly unionized couple, can say they are no longer “legal strangers” — they are finally “next-of-kin.”
[See Civil Unions: The Vermont Approach]
Bill S.115 for legal marriage was introduced and vetoed by the governor Jim Douglas (Republican). On April 7, 2009, the House overrode the veto 100-49, and the Senate passed the override 23-5, making Vermont the first state to embrace marriage equality through representatives without a court order.
The law became effective on September 1, 2009. Vermont is the 5th U.S. state to offer full, legal marriage to same-sex couples.
Two people are eligible to marry in Vermont if they are:
- 18 or older - parental or guardian consent needed for 16-18-year olds.
- Not currently legally married to someone else.
- Of sound mind.
- Not closely related to each other - cannot marry a parent, grandparent, sister, brother, child, grandchild, niece, nephew, aunt or uncle. First cousins, who are Vermont residents, or residents of another state where marriage between first cousins is allowed, may marry each other in Vermont.
- Get a licenses from a Vermont town clerk. If both parties are Vermont residents, go to the town clerk in either of your towns of residence. If just one of you is a Vermont resident, you must buy the license in that town.
- Pay $45 license fee - valid for 60 days from the issuance date - plus $10 for an official copy of the final marriage certificate.
- You must provide your names, towns of residence, places and dates of birth, parents’ names and their places of birth. A certified copy of your birth certificate supplies most of this information.
- You also must provide race, highest school grade completed, number of previous marriages. This information is confidential and does not become part of the marriage certificate.
- Once you have a license, you can be married anywhere in Vermont, but only in Vermont.
- The license can be officiated (performed) by a supreme court justice; a superior court or district or probate or an assistant judge; a justice of the peace or an ordained or licensed member of the clergy residing in Vermont. A clergy person residing in an adjoining state or country can marry you if his or her religious organization lies wholly or partly in Vermont. A clergy member residing in some other state, or in Canada, can marry you if he or she first obtains a special authorization from the probate court in the district where the marriage will take place. In addition, anyone older than 18 may register with the Secretary of State to become a temporary officiant to a marriage for a $100 fee, which expires at the same time as the corresponding license.
- After the ceremony, the officiant will complete the sections concerning the date, place and officiant information, and sign your license. The officiant must return the certificate to the town clerk’s office where it was issued within 10 days after the wedding, so it can be registered.
- No waiting period.
- Other than the officiant, no witnesses are necessary.
- No blood or other tests are required for a marriage license.
- If you have a Civil Union with the same person you wish to marry, you do not need to dissolve the Union.
- If you have a Civil Union with a person other than the one you wish to marry, you must dissolve the Union before you can marry a new person.
- You cannot marry to evade the laws of the state where you live.
- Vermont law requires that at least one of you sign the license in the presence of the town clerk, certifying that all information is correct. However, most town clerks prefer to see both of you in person before issuing your license.
- A license cannot be issued through the mail, and you cannot be married by proxy.
Vermont Department of Health, Vital Records Unit
108 Cherry St., P.O. Box 70, Burlington, VT 05402
Legal Marriage Rights and Responsibilities
- 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
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.
Partners who are not Vermont citizens may be married in Vermont.
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 Vermont 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.
In the Event of a Couple Parting
Vermont 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 Vermont.
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.
Links to Official State Instructions
Getting Married in Vermont - PDF pamphlet
All of the following PDF files are located under the subheading “Marriage Certificate” on Vermont’s:
How To Obtain a Copy of a Vital Record
Governments that offer Full Legal Marriage
South Africa (2005)
New Zealand (2013)
New Zealand (2013)
(England, Wales, Scotland) (2013)
US States & Territories
New Hampshire (2009)
District of Columbia (2009)
New York (2011)
Rhode Island (2013)
New Jersey (2013)
New Mexico (2013)
Michigan (2014) - stayed pending legal challenge
Arkansas (2014) - stayed pending legal challenge
West Virginia (2014)
Kansas (2014) - stayed pending legal challenge
North Carolina (2014)
South Carolina (2014)
U.S. Supreme Court (June 26, 2015):
Ruling: All U.S. States must now
allow same-sex couples the
freedom of legal marriage.
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)