from the Order Entered June 19, 2015 in the Court of Common
Pleas of Philadelphia County Family Court at No(s): 008400,
Term June 2014.
BEFORE: FORD ELLIOTT, P.J.E., OTT, and FITZGERALD,
Freyda Neyman, appeals from the order of the Philadelphia
County Court of Common Pleas Family Court Division that
dismissed her complaint in divorce seeking the dissolution of
her Vermont civil union. Appellant claims the trial court
erred in dismissing her complaint for lack of jurisdiction,
and in support, she argues that under principles of comity,
the Family Court Division had jurisdiction to dissolve her
civil union under the Pennsylvania Divorce
Code. We hold that a Vermont civil union creates
the functional equivalent of marriage for the purposes of
dissolution and conclude the trial court erred in dismissing
the complaint. Therefore, we reverse and remand for further
12, 2002, Appellant and Appellee, Florence Buckley
(collectively, "the parties"), two adult
Pennsylvania residents, entered into a civil union in
Vermont, the first state to offer civil unions. The parties
began living separate and apart in December 2002. At that
time, same-sex marriage was not recognized in the United
2014, the parties each signed respective affidavits of
consent, which specified that their civil union was
irretrievably broken and stated the intention to request a
final decree of divorce/dissolution. On June 2, 2014,
Appellant filed a complaint in the trial court averring that
the parties were adults who had resided in the Commonwealth
of Pennsylvania for at least six months prior to the
complaint and seeking the entry of a divorce/dissolution
decree under Section 3301(c) of the Pennsylvania Divorce
4, 2015, Appellant filed a praecipe to transmit the record of
the entry of a final decree/dissolution of the civil union.
22, 2015, the trial court dismissed Appellant's complaint
[T]he Family Court Division may only divorce parties from the
'bonds of matrimony.' Pa.R.C.P. 1920.1 (a). This
court cannot issue a Decree or Order dissolving the Vermont
Civil Union that is the subject of this action. Therefore,
the Complaint in Divorce is hereby dismissed. The Civil Trial
Division of Philadelphia County has jurisdiction over
complaints seeking dissolution of civil unions as actions in
equity and has entered order/judgments dissolving same.
filed a motion for reconsideration, which the trial court did
not address. Appellant took the instant timely appeal on July
22, 2015. On August 20, 2015, Appellant timely filed a
court-ordered Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b) statement of errors
complained of on appeal.
trial court issued a Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) responsive opinion on
February 23, 2016. The court observed the Pennsylvania
Constitution of 1968 vests jurisdiction in the family court
division for matters implicating domestic relations,
including "divorce and annulment and property matters
relating thereto." Trial Ct. Op., 2/23/16, at 6-7
(discussing Pa. Const. art. V, Sched. § 16). The court
concluded the Divorce Code and the Rules of Civil Procedure
refer to "divorce from the bonds of matrimony, "
and did not authorize the dissolution of civil unions.
Id. at 4-5. Moreover, the court determined it was
under no obligation to recognize a Vermont civil union as a
marriage because Vermont maintains a distinction between a
civil union and a same-sex civil marriage. Id. at 5.
Lastly, the court noted that the appropriate forum for
Appellant's action was in the civil trial division.
Id. at 8.
appeal, Appellant raises the following issues for review:
1. Whether the Court of Common Pleas Family Division has
jurisdiction over the dissolution of a Vermont civil union
entered into by Pennsylvania residents?
2. Whether a Vermont civil union may be treated as a marriage
by a Pennsylvania court for purposes of dissolving that civil
union under the Divorce Code.
Appellant's Brief at 4.
instant case involves the question of whether a legal cause
of action in dissolution exists, our standard of review is
de novo and this Court must independently review the
record to determine whether a legal divorce action is
presented. Jayne v. Jayne, 663 A.2d 169, 172 (Pa.
the jurisdiction of the family court divisions of the courts
of common pleas, Section 952 of the Judiciary Code provides:
The divisions of a court of common pleas are administrative
units composed of those judges of the court responsible for
the transaction of specified classes of the business of the
court. In a court of common pleas having two or more
divisions each division of the court is vested with the full
jurisdiction of the whole court, but the business of the
court may be allocated among the divisions of the court by or
pursuant to general rules.
42 Pa.C.S. § 952.
Schedule to Article 5 of the 1968 Pennsylvania Constitution
pertains to Philadelphia and states:
(q) The court of common pleas through the family court
division of the court of common pleas shall exercise
jurisdiction in the following matters:
(i) Domestic Relations: desertion or nonsupport of wives,
children and indigent parents, including children born out of
wedlock; proceedings for custody of children; divorce and