For Jada Hansen, breaking up was particularly hard to do. When her six-year relationship ended in 2003, she and her partner shared, among other things, a mortgage, a checking account and two dogs.
"It ended being a terribly, terribly messy thing," she said. "They kept sending us to this arbitration room and said, 'Just work it out.' Basically our lawyers just sat in a room [with a mediator] and talked about scenarios for about two years. In the end, I walked away with $10,000 of about a $135,000 house."
Hansen's case is hardly atypical for gay people in Minnesota. Five states, including Iowa, and Canada allow gay and lesbian marriages, and many Minneapolis couples have tied the knot in other states. But since Minnesota does not recognize gay marriage -- Hansen and her ex had held a nonbinding wedding ceremony before their split -- there's no such thing as divorce court for them.
While heterosexual couples' breakups are difficult and daunting, they face fewer hurdles than do their same-sex counterparts here. "If they have children, they go into family courts, and if they own property together, they go to civil court," said Melissa Houghtaling, a lawyer with the GLBT- focused firm Heltzer & Burg. "Whereas if they were a heterosexual married couple, they could go to one court to deal with all of that.
"Same-sex couples can have two lawsuits going on at one time, whereas heterosexual couples would have one dissolution case."
To avoid pricey lawsuits that would send them to civil court, gay and lesbian couples generally opt to go through a private mediation or arbitration.
Going to civil court involves what another GLBT attorney, Jonathan Burris, calls "a very archaic legal process called partition of a business partnership, which is always a long, slow road because of the extraordinary expense and overloaded court dockets."
Figuring out who gets what can be every bit as contentious as with traditional married couples -- with the occasional twist.
"Figuring out who gets possession of the family dog can be a big issue," said Burris, who has his own Minneapolis law firm.
It certainly was for Hansen. "I only got one of my dogs, the one she didn't want. I finally got some family heirlooms [back]," said Hansen, who lives with her new partner, Katie Louis, and their 1-year-old child in Louis' Minneapolis house. Because her name was on the mortgage with her ex-partner, Hansen said, she was unable to have her name put on this mortgage.
"It would be wonderful if we could have just divorced, walked in, split things up," she said. "At a certain point, it becomes like, 'How much will you pay to just walk away?'"
Another state, another course
Same-sex couples who get married in other states or Canada do have one other option: One of them can move to the state where they tied the knot, or another one that recognizes their union. But most such states have residency requirements of six months or more, said Houghtaling, "so you can't just live in Minnesota and say, 'I'm gonna go get divorced in Iowa.'"
Those who were married in Canada face an even longer wait -- two years' residency -- before they can initiate divorce proceedings.
There is one area of common ground between same-sex and heterosexual splits, and a rather surprising one at that: child custody. Not only are these issues resolved in the same family courts, but they generally follow identical biological ground rules.
Gay couples who adopt often end up with both partners as legal parents. In lesbian couples, one of the women often is the biological parent and the other then adopts the child. In all such cases, the two parents are regarded equally in custody battles.
"Once you become a legal parent independent of whether you are biologically related, you have all the rights and opportunities and obligations of a biological parent," said Houghtaling. "So when it comes to custody, you would be treated like a heterosexual couple.
"Biology kind of leaves the picture."
But there are always those battles over dogs. When Lee Roehl, founder of the Twin Cities Quorum, a sort of GLBT Chamber of Commerce, and his partner split up four years ago, they went to a mediator to divide up "our property and a business and some show dogs and a bunch of crap.
"My former partner decided it wasn't working and went and got his own attorney," Roehl said. "After tens of thousands in legal fees, well, it seems to me he got a lot less than he would have because so much went to attorneys' fees."
Still, that course is more the exception than the rule, said Roehl, who frequently deals with relationship dissolutions as president of ROR Tax Professionals in St. Louis Park.
"Our clients are about one-third gay, one-third lesbian and one-third straight, so in my professional life I deal with a lot of people going through breakups," he said. "I am always surprised at how civilized gays and lesbians generally are, that people going through tough emotional times can be so mature.
"Generally speaking, [resolving breakups] is not a big issue. But when it does become an issue, it becomes a big mess."
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643