Same-sex couples in St. Louis can get married in Iowa. They just can't ever get divorced.

The day begins before dawn, with about 40 bleary-eyed people climbing aboard a charter bus at 5 a.m. sharp at Metropolitan Community Church of Greater Saint Louis in Soulard. Despite the hour, everyone is joyful, snapping photos and breaking into choruses of "Chapel of Love." There are old folks, young folks, white folks, black folks, pregnant folks, folks who've been together months and folks who've been in committed relationships for decades.

The flat highway stretches before them as the sun comes up and climbs the sky over the heartland. They file into the Johnson County Administration Building in Iowa City en masse and then, Iowa marriage licenses in hand, hop over to the Unitarian Universalist Society of Iowa City. Two and a half hours, three officiants and twelve weddings later, they jam themselves, exhausted, back onto the bus.

Sixteen hours and almost 600 miles later, the day is officially...meaningless.

Ryan and Alvin Hotop-Hill: Newlyweds in Iowa, roommates in Missouri.
Melissa Meinzer
Ryan and Alvin Hotop-Hill: Newlyweds in Iowa, roommates in Missouri.
Attorney Todd Sivia helps a same-sex couples untangle their property and their lives.
Jennifer Silverberg
Attorney Todd Sivia helps a same-sex couples untangle their property and their lives.

The twelve newly married couples from in and around St. Louis traveled to Iowa to take advantage of that state's marriage laws. Any two non-related adults — regardless of gender — can marry in Iowa, with no waiting period to establish residency. And all the couples on the bus that sunny, mild Friday in October were same-sex couples.

Yet in Missouri, same-sex couples are expressly prohibited from marrying. Nor does the state recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

From a legal standpoint, back home in Missouri, the newlyweds' marriage certificates amount to no more than fish wrap.

Since 2009, when an Iowa Supreme Court ruling extended marriage rights to all unrelated adults, with no residency requirement, nearly 90 couples have taken the long bus ride from St. Louis to Iowa City with Show Me No Hate, the St. Louis-based marriage-equity group that charters the buses. [Editor's Note: A correction ran concerning this paragraph; please see end of article.]

As the country's marriage laws evolve and change to suit the mindset of each state's citizens, same-sex couples find themselves in a unique bind. Their marital status can change when they cross state lines, which makes moving a potential nightmare.

What's even more complicated — and potentially more of a disaster — is what happens when such unions end.

Same-sex couples who seek divorce are coming up against a patchwork of laws that are shifting constantly and almost never offer the same protections that divorce laws offer opposite-sex spouses who split. Add in the fact that most states have far more onerous residency requirements for divorce than marriage, and some couples are forced to try to move on with their lives even while married to someone from their past, stuck in limbo until the laws catch up to the new reality.

The federal government's position, clarified with 1996's Defense of Marriage Act, is that marriage is reserved for one man and one woman, and that no state is required to recognize marriages from a state that doesn't adhere to this tenet. Most states don't allow same-sex marriage, and most states don't recognize same-sex marriages from other states.

In five states — Connecticut, Massachusetts, Iowa, New Hampshire and Vermont, as well as in the District of Columbia — marriage is legal for same-sex couples. Same-sex couples who are residents of those states can divorce exactly as opposite-sex resident couples can. In New York, Rhode Island and Maryland, same-sex marriages are recognized but not performed. Same-sex divorce laws in those three states are evolving now.

In Missouri, as in all remaining states, the Defense of Marriage Act defines marriage as between one man and one woman. And an additional state amendment in Missouri, overwhelmingly passed in 2004, explicitly bans same-sex marriage.

Same-sex couples frequently cross state lines, making marriage pilgrimages like the dozen St. Louis couples did in October. But it doesn't mean they have the same rights back at home — often, they aren't considered married at all.

And that leads to serious complications when those marriages end.

When a heterosexual couple divorces, they can draw on decades of legal precedent. States have established ways to divide up property that the couple acquired as a unit, regardless of who literally did the purchasing.

For couples who are legally married — and that only means heterosexual couples here — Missouri is an equitable-distribution state: Say a couple buys a house together, but the wife has the better-paying job, and so she pays more of the costs during the marriage. If the husband gets primary custody of the children in a divorce, the court might decide it's in everyone's best interest for him to remain in the house. Equal? No, but equitable.

But when there isn't the legal mechanism of divorce in play, a pair trying to divide assets has to prove, literally, who paid for each and every item. Did you save the receipt for your toaster?

Attorneys who specialize in divorce and real estate and property division say that such splits can be extremely tricky. When couples who aren't married in the eyes of the law seek to divide their property, titles and receipts are all they legally have to go on. It's possible for one party to end up broke after years of keeping house and not working while the other party functioned as the primary breadwinner.

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