There were no bouquets, no beaming minister, no three-tiered cake to celebrate the three-page document.
There was no official photographer to record the occasion, just a notary’s stamp to make it official, but it was momentous all the same.
At 1:35 p.m. Monday, for the first time in state history, a Nebraskan in a same-sex marriage legally filed for divorce.
In some strange way, that three-page filing in Douglas County was a fitting and important bookend to last Friday’s much more joyous first — the first same-sex marriage in Nebraska.
Why? Because it exposes just how insane our previous state-by-state approach was to gay marriage, divorce lawyers told me this week. And it underlines just how crucial Friday’s Supreme Court decision was.
In recent years, some same-sex married couples in Nebraska have been trapped in what sounds like a twisted matrimonial joke.
After being legally married in states like Iowa, their marriages went south, as marriages sometimes do. Except these couples couldn’t get divorced in Iowa, because you have to be a permanent resident of Iowa for a year to get divorced there. And they couldn’t get divorced in Nebraska, because Nebraska of course did not legally recognize their marital status in the first place.
Which meant, for an unknown number of our state’s residents — maybe dozens of people, lawyers think, maybe hundreds — there was no way out of marriage.
It meant that for months, for years they were just ... stuck.
“It’s been very difficult for people to move on with their lives. It’s been very difficult for people to move on to new relationships,” says Susan Koenig, a divorce lawyer whose law firm represented a couple who fought Nebraska’s gay marriage ban. “There is something to be said about the finality of (divorce). It allows you to grieve that it’s over. It allows you to go on.”
When she heard about last Friday’s ruling, Gretchen Fowler rejoiced in the equal right to marry. She rejoiced for about 30 seconds, and then she had a thought: Ooohh, wait. I can probably get divorced now.
“That’s not how I pictured this happening,” she says. “But, yes, my mind did go to (divorce) pretty quickly.”
Fowler, who lives in Grand Island, got married in Council Bluffs to her longtime partner in early 2014. She never thought to ask about what would happen if the marriage dissolved — the couple had been together seven years already, and besides, who thinks about splitting up on their wedding day?
She didn’t think about divorce at all until three days before Christmas. That’s the day her wife left.
Fowler had all the painful feelings you have when it doesn’t work out. Frustration. Betrayal. Sorrow. Grief.
But atop this grief sat other emotions. Fowler worried that people would look at her failed marriage as a reason for denying same-sex couples the right to marry. And she feared that she wouldn’t be allowed to get divorced. Ever.
“This is someone I don’t want to be associated with anymore as a spouse,” Fowler said. “And yet I had to be. Why?”
This inability to get legally split led to all sorts of real-world problems that heterosexual couples don’t face, says Mike Kennedy, the divorce lawyer representing the Omaha woman who filed Nebraska’s first same-sex divorce petition. (Through him, she declined comment.)
How do you split up property? How do you share the cost of bank loans or credit card debts?
There’s the issue of dividing up 401(k) retirement funds and continuing health insurance for the partner who may be self-employed. And there’s the issue of financially protecting the spouse who might have given up a career or moved to Nebraska in order to support the career of the other spouse.
Nebraska law has long offered solutions to all these problems, Kennedy says, so long as you were a man married to a woman, or a woman married to a man. But if you were a same-sex married couple who wanted to get divorced, he says, “you were inside a long nightmare.”
“It’s important that Nebraska has a mechanism” for ending a bad marriage, he says. “This is one of the reasons we have a court system.”
The Sarpy County divorce lawyer expects a steady stream of same-sex filings for the rest of the year. He says he’s gotten dozens of calls over the years from gay Nebraskans who wanted a divorce but were frustrated to learn there were few ways to get one.
Koenig, a divorce lawyer near downtown Omaha, said it’s too soon to know if there will be a divorce spike, but she said her law firm has handled multiple cases over the years involving same-sex couples trying to split up their assets outside of the standard divorce system.
All this talk of splitting assets and dissolving marriages is a little depressing, to be sure, especially in the afterglow of the historic Supreme Court ruling and subsequent joyous rush to the courthouse.
But let’s be real about the present: Nearly 35 percent of all couples married in the 1990s are now divorced, according to state and federal data.
Let’s be real about the past. When ol’ Tommy Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he wasn’t thinking about same-sex marriage, but he was pondering the phrase “unalienable rights.”
That’s why he didn’t write that we are all entitled to life, liberty and happiness. That’s why he chose life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
And so let’s be real about the future, too. Now, no matter gay or straight, we have a shot at happiness before we shuffle off to that great Tinder (or Grindr) date in the sky. Now we can all chase that marital bliss if we so choose — even if it sometimes ends in a three-page notarized document titled, “Complaint for dissolution of marriage.”
“They aren’t asking for any special treatment,” Kennedy says of his client and others. “They just want to get divorced.”