Updated Monday, November 26, 2012 at 11:31 PM
After Vermont became the first state to grant recognition to same-sex couples through civil unions more than a decade ago, Mike Schultz and his partner traveled there from Spokane to legalize their relationship — among untold numbers of couples from across the country who did the same.
The men didn't notice fine print in the law requiring at least one of them to reside in Vermont for at least six months if they ever decided to dissolve their civil union. In fact, they could just as easily have ended it here in Washington, and will. But they didn't know that, and neither did an attorney they consulted.
Now, more than a decade later and with same-sex marriage legal in Washington, each man has a new partner he wants to marry but, like countless other couples, they will first need to clear their path to the altar.
In the weeks since Washington voters approved Referendum 74 to legalize same-sex marriage, county and state officials as well as legal groups have fielded a multitude of questions from gay couples who want to make sure they may legally wed in this state once the law goes into effect next month.
The calls are coming from people in a patchwork of relationship arrangements. Some have simple cases: two people in a committed relationship who want only to know the when, where and how much of marriage licenses.
Other questions are more complex, coming from couples already legally bound to each other or to former partners; some married in other states, in Canada or other countries; and still others in civil unions or domestic partnerships formed here or somewhere else.
No single government department is equipped to answer all the questions. Attorneys and legal groups that have worked with same-sex couples and on gay issues are fielding many of the calls, but even they at times are stumbling over ambiguities in the law.
David Ward of Legal Voice, an organization that works to protect the rights of women and gays, said his office has been taking three or four calls a day since Ref. 74 was approved.
Same-sex marriage becomes legal here Dec. 6, with a three-day waiting period before couples may wed.
Washington joins eight other states and the District of Columbia where gay marriage is legal.
Beginning at midnight Dec. 6, the King County Recorder's Office will begin issuing marriage licenses — remaining open for 18 ½ straight hours that day and for extended hours the next two days.
County Executive Dow Constantine will sign the first license, reportedly to be that of the matriarchs of Seattle's gay community, Jane Lighty and Pete-e Petersen.
On Dec. 9, the first day gays will be able to legally wed, Seattle City Hall, Seattle First Baptist Church on First Hill and a host of other venues will throw open their doors for multiple wedding ceremonies.
But before he can marry, Mike Schultz, who lives with his new partner in Seattle, has some legal housecleaning to do.
He and his former partner split in 2005 and last year contacted the Vermont Secretary of State's Office to find out how they could officially dissolve their civil union. He learned for the first time about the residency requirement for divorce, something neither man was able to do.
What Schultz didn't know is that under Washington's domestic-partnership law, enacted in 2007, he could have dissolved his civil union here at home. Under that law, the state recognizes out-of-state civil unions and domestic partnerships for the purposes of granting benefits, including dissolutions.
And while it doesn't help Schultz, Vermont recently eased its residency requirements to allow uncontested divorces and dissolutions for couples living in states that don't recognize their Vermont union.
Canada took that step earlier this year, as did the District of Columbia.
Schultz and his former partner will dissolve their civil union right away, he said. Eventually he'd like to marry, "because of the legal protections behind it and not because we feel a need to have society affirm our relationship."
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or email@example.com. On Twitter @turnbullL.
A panel discussion to answer legal questions on the state's same-sex-marriage law is 6 p.m. next Monday at Town Hall. Information: townhallseattle.org/pride-foundation-marriage-equality-explained/
A public hearing this week sponsored by the State Department of Health will take comments on language of a new marriage certificate. The proposed document would swap the terms bride and groom with Spouse A and Spouse B and create a space for gender. The meeting will be at 8 a.m. Wednesday at 310 Israel Rd. S.E., Rooms 152-153, in Tumwater, Thurston County.
Getting the license: The King County Recorder's Office, 500 Fourth Ave. in Seattle, will be the only place in King County where same-sex couples can obtain marriage licenses during the first three days the law is in effect. Both applicants need to be present and have a photo ID to apply, along with the $64 fee.
Hours: The office will be open 12 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 6; 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 7; and 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8. Information: kingcounty.gov/courts/marriage.aspx
DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Steven Sanford, left, and Mike Schultz hope to take advantage of the new gay-marriage law eventually but need to resolve issues tied to Schultz's earlier civil union in Vermont.