A Greenville, South Carolina woman's decision to file for divorce led to recent headlines across the state and country. Why, you might be wondering, could a simple divorce petition result in such attention? The reason is that the woman is asking a South Carolina Family Court to dissolve what she says is a same-sex common law marriage, something that has never been done in this state and, should it prove successful, would have serious implications on the current gay marriage debate.
The divorce petition appears much like any other. Cathy Swicegood is asking to end what she says is a lengthy marriage; Swicegood requests equitable division of mutually acquired property and alimony from her partner of 13 years, Polly Thompson. The couple lived together for over a decade in Mauldin before separating last December as their relationship deteriorated.
Swicegood's attorney says he understands that his client's case is a controversial one and he actually expects to lose. Specifically, the attorney believes that the divorce petition will be thrown out of the Greenville Family Court, given that same-sex marriages are not legally recognized in South Carolina. However, losing is exactly what Swicegood wants. After the petition is tossed, Swicegood intends to appeal the matter to a federal court, requesting that the court order Swicegood and Thompson to be treated as a common law married couple.
While Swicegood's lawyer is arguing that the case should be heard based on equal protection grounds, Thompson's lawyer has said the entire same-sex divorce is misguided given that the two women were never married. Regardless of South Carolina's law on the subject of gay marriage, Thompson's lawyer points out that the two were never married in any state and that a divorce would thus not make sense.
However, Swicegood's petition claims that the two exchanged and wore wedding rings and were considered married by their family and friends. They had joint bank accounts, were listed as beneficiaries on one another's retirement funds and co-owned real estate together. Thompson's lawyer again says that these things are immaterial and that under the law of South Carolina, the two women were not married and thus cannot now be divorced. South Carolina family lawyers will have to wait and see whether a federal court decides differently.