Gay marriage: How the law works

OLYMPIA — Gay and lesbian couples will start getting married in Washington state as early as Sunday, as the new state law allowing same-sex marriage takes effect this week.

With the passage of Referendum 74, Washington is now one of nine states that have legalized gay marriage. Maine and Maryland approved same-sex marriage with public votes last month as well, and six other states — New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont — and the District of Columbia had already enacted laws or issued court rulings that permit same-sex marriage.

R-74 asked people to approve or reject a state law legalizing same-sex marriage that legislators passed earlier this year. That law was signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire but was on hold pending the outcome of the election. Nearly 54 percent of voters approved the law.

Here’s a look at what happens this week as the law takes effect:

Signing ceremony

Secretary of State Sam Reed and Gregoire will officially certify the election and Gregoire will sign same-sex marriage into law at a ceremony Wednesday afternoon in Olympia. The law doesn’t actually take effect until Thursday, when gay and lesbian couples can start picking up their wedding certificates and licenses. Because the state has a three-day waiting period, the earliest that marriage certificates could be signed at a wedding or ceremony, making the marriage valid, is Sunday at 12:01 a.m.


Counties started preparing earlier this year once the law was first passed by the Legislature, and some auditors will have extended business hours because of the expected increase in the number of couples seeking licenses starting Thursday. Vicky Dalton, the Spokane County Auditor, was designated as a point person for all of the counties on preparing for same-sex marriage. She said that many counties, especially urban ones like King County, will see a sizeable increase in volume on Thursday and Friday, especially because they’ll see couples who want to get their licenses and certificates in advance of Dec. 12, for the novelty 12-12-12 anniversary date.

Snohomish County Auditor Carolyn Weikel isn’t sure what to expect when her office opens at 9 a.m., which is the regular time.

On a normal day, her staff processes 15 to 20 requests for marriage licenses. With a large demand expected in King County — licenses there will be made available starting at midnight — some residents may drive to Everett instead.

“I don’t think anything would surprise me,” Weikel said. “We’re prepared for a crowd. We just hope it is as a festive and warm environment for all.”

The application fee is $56 in Island County, $64 in Snohomish and King counties, and the acceptable methods of payment vary by county. The license becomes valid 72 hours after the application is filed and is valid for 60 days.

King County has information on its website at about what couples need to know before obtaining a marriage license, and has a “marriage equality countdown” clock ticking down the minutes until it will issue its first license.

King County, the state’s largest and home to Seattle, and Thurston County, home to the state capital of Olympia, will open the earliest of any of the counties, at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, to issue marriage licenses. Thurston County will close its office after the first 10 licenses are issued at 12:01 a.m. but will reopen for extended hours from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursday.

Couples in King County will begin lining up at 10 p.m. Wednesday, and the county will issue licenses from 12:01 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. Extended hours are also planned for Friday and Saturday in King County and Friday in Thurston.

Pierce County will open at 6:30 a.m. Clark and Island counties will start issuing licenses at 8 a.m., and other counties are expected to have regular business hours.

Dalton said that there are essentially three forms involved for marriage: an application the couple fills out at the county, the license they are issued to give to the person who will officiate their wedding, and the certificate that is the actual marriage contract recorded by the state. She noted that licenses are only valid for 60 days, so someone planning a June wedding does not need a license until April at the earliest. There is no residency requirement to get married in Washington state.

Marriage certificates

The state Department of Health changed the language on marriage certificate and divorce forms. Secretary of Health Mary Selecky recently approved adding “spouse” to the existing language that includes “bride” and “groom” and couples can check a box to choose the term they prefer.

The new form also adds space on the form for gender so that the state, which already keeps track of the number of marriages and divorces in the state, can now break the data out to reflect same-sex marriages and dissolutions.

On Thursday, couples will fill out an application at their county auditor’s office, and then will be issued a license to give to the person who will officiate their wedding, as well as the certificate that is the actual marriage contract that will be recorded by the state. Rep. Jaime Pedersen, a Seattle attorney who was one of the sponsors of gay marriage legislation, said that same-sex couples who previously were married in another state that allows gay marriage, like Massachusetts, will not have to get remarried in Washington state. He said that their marriages will be valid here as soon as the law takes effect.

“It is possible for anyone who is married somewhere else to file the certificate here so the state knows, but it’s not necessary,” he said.

Tim Church, a spokesman for the state Department of Health, said recognition of out-of-state same-sex marriages will be treated the same as heterosexual marriages.

“Just like today, if a couple is legally married in another state, they are legally married here,” he said.

Wedding ceremonies

Seattle City Hall will open for several hours on Sunday, and several local judges are donating their time to marry couples. Aaron Pickus, a spokesman for Mayor Mike McGinn, said that more than 140 couples have registered in advance to get married at City Hall, and weddings will begin at 10 a.m. P

edersen said that weddings are also planned during the Seattle Men’s Chorus concert at Benaroya Hall in Seattle Sunday night. Also, Seattle Theatre Group, the Seattle mayor’s office, Washington United For Marriage, Music For Marriage Equality and weekly newspaper The Stranger will host a wedding reception at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle starting at 6 p.m. Sunday.

Federal benefits

Married same-sex couples will still be denied access to federal pensions, health insurance and other government benefits available to heterosexual couples because the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, bars federal recognition of gay unions.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to take up gay marriage sometime during the current term. Several pending cases challenge the federal benefit provision of DOMA, and a separate appeal asks the justices to decide whether federal courts were correct in striking down California’s Proposition 8, the amendment that outlawed gay marriage after it had been approved by courts in the nation’s largest state.

Domestic partnerships

There are nearly 10,000 domestic partnership registrations with the secretary of state’s office. Most same-sex domestic partnerships that aren’t ended prior to June 30, 2014, automatically become marriages.

Same-sex couples still have the option of filing as domestic partners up to and including June 29, 2014, but their partnerships will be converted to marriage on June 30, 2014, unless one of the partners is 62 or older.

From June 30, 2014 on, domestic partnerships, for both heterosexual and gay couples, can only be filed where one partner is 62 or older.

That provision was included in the state’s first domestic partnership law of 2007 to help heterosexual seniors who don’t remarry out of fear they could lose certain pension or Social Security benefits.

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