Publications

Traveling to Another State or Country to Marry?
Marriage
05/27/2008

If your home state refuses to marry same-sex couples, you may be wondering whether you should visit another state or country to get married. Here are some important things to consider before making this decision.

1. Where do we start?

You should start where people in different-sex couples have always started, by asking yourself and your partner some essential questions. Are you ready for this legal commitment? Do you want to bind your lives together with significant financial and other consequences? Marriage is a serious commitment with big responsibilities, and only you and your partner can answer these very personal questions for yourselves.

2. What are the extra concerns same-sex couples have in choosing whether or not to marry?

Same-sex couples — especially those who can’t marry in their home state — face a host of unique questions because they can face discrimination in all parts of their lives. For instance, some state laws give protections to same-sex couples, while others deny same-sex couples those protections — the landscape is laid out in Lambda Legal’s Safety Scale. Then you have to add federal law, which is hostile to same-sex couples as a result of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act. All these laws may affect your marriage wherever you live, so your decision about whether to marry needs to take this landscape into account.

3. What are some specific reasons we might decide not to get married?

If one of you is in the military or is in the United States on an immigration visa, getting married could be harmful under federal laws, such as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which require discrimination based on sexual orientation. (For more information about issues for binational couples, consult Immigration Equality). If you or your partner is receiving needs-based government benefits like public assistance, getting married might cost you the benefits because spousal income and assets may be counted as part of determining your eligibility. Or if you are in the process of adopting a child or planning to do so, some states and countries allow adoptions by single parents but not by same-sex-couples, so a marriage could complicate matters. Lastly, there are states like Wisconsin and Delaware that impose criminal penalties on their residents if they enter a marriage outside the state that would have been prohibited in the state, and these may be interpreted to apply to marriages of same-sex couples who live in those states. (For Wisconsin, the penalty is stiff – up to $10,000 or 9 months imprisonment, or both.)

For more information on these situations, call one of Lambda Legal’s Help Desks.

4. What else should we consider if we’re thinking of marrying in another state or country?

The uncertainty, if nothing else. Many states have passed laws denying recognition to marriages of same-sex couples. In those states, state and local governments likely will not respect your marriage. The good news is that when you return home married, you will have a unique chance every day to serve as role models for what married same-sex couples look like and to show that your marriage strengthens your relationship, and harms no one. Your personal example of love and commitment will be an important contribution to our civil rights work. But if you choose to get married, remember that you are married. You cannot say you’re married only when it helps but not when it hurts. That means, for example, you will identify yourself as married on applications and forms for jobs, apartments, credit, mortgages, insurance, medical treatment and, where advisable, on state or federal returns (for more on taxes, see Tax Tips). You will be doing this even as other people — and the law — may not see you as married and discriminate against you. You will be doing this even when you may get all the burdens of marriage but few of the benefits.

Then there’s divorce. Half of all different-sex couples’ marriages end in divorce, and we shouldn’t expect our relationships to be more immune to problems. Your home state may not permit you to dissolve your marriage, and all states have some type of residency requirement to get a divorce. We’ve already had a handful of heart-wrenching calls from individuals married to a person of the same sex who wanted to get out of the marriage but couldn’t. They experience difficulty moving on because of what that existing marriage may mean for entering a new relationship. Further, as either individual in the failed marriage travels or moves from one state to another, the light switch goes on and off with regard to whether or not they have the responsibilities of the marriage that still exists. That has to be considered in your decision. For some background on how some couples with out-of-state marriages have been faring, see Legal Recognition of Same-Sex Couples’ Marriages, Civil Unions, and Domestic Partnerships.

5. Can we sue if we experience discrimination against our marriage?

Well-planned lawsuits can occasionally advance the battle for marriage equality. But it’s a big decision to file a marriage lawsuit, whether you want respect for your marriage or you want to get out of it, and it’s a mistake to go into court without consulting experts. If you lose — and unfortunately many marriage-related lawsuits have failed — you may establish a legal barrier, not just for you and your partner but for many other same-sex couples as well. Besides the high risk of losing, lawsuits take a long time, can cost a lot of money and can result in terrible invasions of your privacy and other burdens that aren’t always apparent at the outset. We encourage you to decide whether to get married based on what is right for your relationship and your family, and not with the goal of changing the law in a court action, or the belief that a lawsuit can solve any problems you encounter. If you do confront discrimination, please contact Lambda Legal so we can help you figure out whether a lawsuit or other action makes sense.

6. What can we do to protect ourselves, whether or not we decide not to get married?

Although marriage provides a vast set of protections, there are other important steps you can take to protect yourself, your relationship and your family as much as possible. First, investigate what protections your state may already offer by way of civil unions, domestic partnerships or other means like designating individuals to have authority to make medical or other decisions for you if you can’t. See Lambda Legal’s “Protecting Same-Sex Relationships: Marriages, Civil Unions and Domestic Partnerships” for the background materials you will need; to begin a search for a friendly attorney in your area, contact one of Lambda Legal’s Help Desks.

You should also protect yourself and your family with some basic life-planning tools. This is true even for married different-sex couples, but if you’re in a same-sex couple — married or not — life planning is even more important because you may face discrimination. For help, see Lambda Legal’s life-planning toolkit, Take The Power: Tools for Life and Financial Planning.

7. If we decide to get married in another state or country, where can we go?

The list of your options is growing. For an updated list of U.S. states that marry same-sex couples, see Lambda Legal’s Safety Scale. Or feel free to call one of the Lambda Legal Help Desks.

For updated lists of the countries that marry same-sex couples, including Canada and Spain, visit

* Status of Marriage Equality Worldwide

To find the requirements you have to meet for a marriage in another country, begin as you would if you wished to marry in another state, with an online search to find the appropriate website — for instance, Toronto’s marriage license page. Many couples (same or different sex) get married abroad, but different-sex couples have few if any worries about whether their marriages will be respected at home. The state of New York has set one of the best examples in terms of respecting the Canadian marriages of same-sex couples. For more information, see Lambda Legal’s publication “Update: Marriage Recognition for Same-Sex Couples in New York.”

8. What else can we do to help achieve equality for same-sex relationships?

No matter where you live, you and your partner can do a lot to help us make the case for equality for same-sex relationships. Some states will inevitably move more quickly than others, but working together we will pull all states forward. Here are a few ideas:

  • Join the growing movement to advocate that employers or organizations that choose sites for a convention or meeting avoid locales that require or promote discrimination against same-sex relationships. See Lambda Legal’s Safety Scale to see which states rank best and worst.
  • If there are no statewide domestic partner benefits in your state, get in touch with your state LGBT political group or state legislator to help get the ball rolling. One big first step in some states has been to advocate for benefits for state employees. See “Examples of States that Provide Benefits to Same-Sex Partners of State Employees” to find out whether your state already has these protections and, if not, to have what you need to help persuade your state to catch up.
  • If you live in a state that has a constitutional amendment banning marriage and some other forms of recognition for same-sex couples' committed relationships, and everyone agrees it is not currently possible to protect same-sex relationships directly, there is still some hope. See Lambda Legal’s publication “Selected State Laws Permitting Designation of Individuals to Make Decisions or Receive Benefits, Without Recognition of a Relationship" to explore existing laws that provide some basic protections like the right to visit in the hospital.
  • Support the fight against the proposed constitutional revision in California by visiting www.equalityforall.com.

PLEASE NOTE: This document offers general information only and is not intended to provide guidance or legal advice regarding anyone's specific situation. This is an evolving area of law in which there is bound to be uncertainty. If you have additional questions or are looking for contact information for private attorneys to advise you, contact Lambda Legal's Help Desk at 212-809-8585 (toll-free: 866-542-8336) or legalhelpdesk@lambdalegal.org.