London (CNSNews.com) - With same-sex couples in Great Britain now enjoying many of the same rights as married couples, lawyers here this week said that the courts are quickly gearing up for the next chapter in the story - "gay divorce."
In the weeks since the new Civil Partnership Act took effect, hundreds of same-sex couples have taken advantage of its provisions to register their unions at their local town halls.
Though the government has stopped short of officially calling the pacts marriage, the new arrangements give civil partners virtually all the rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples.
Official researchers estimate that around 22,000 people will enter into civil partnerships during the next five years, which means that an untold number will also move to dissolve these unions.
According to lawyers, since the United Kingdom doesn't allow for dissolution of civil partnerships until a year after they're formed, the first wave of "gay divorces" isn't expected to happen until 2007.
However, once they do happen, lawyers say that family courts will treat them almost exactly as they would traditional divorces.
In cases where the contesting partners are unable to come to voluntary settlements, judges will divide up their financial assets, make arrangements for child custody and even alimony.
As a result, one analyst warns that richer partners might fall into the same trap increasingly being faced by heterosexual men in the United Kingdom.
Speaking last month, Martin Mears, an analyst for Civitas, a conservative think-tank, said that family courts were falling into the trend of unjustly splitting up marital assets -- regardless of who was at fault in the divorce.
In cases where one former partner earned significantly more than the other, he said that men and women might face decades of financial obligations, even if the civil union only lasted for a relatively brief time.
"If I were asked for advice by a man or woman considering entering into a civil partnership, I would ask who was bringing the larger share of assets to the relationship," Mears said. "If my client had more valuable assets, I would advise him or her against entering such a partnership."
However, Andrea Woelke, a London lawyer who specializes in family legal matters, said he didn't expect too many high-profile payouts in the coming years.
Generally, Woelke said the first group of men and women entering into civil partnerships were generally older than people setting out on their first marriages and were also much more aware of their legal rights.
While many of his clients were shocked at how their assets were split upon divorce -- along with the amount of alimony they had to pay -- he said that most civil partners entered into their unions with their eyes open.
"I think people are more aware [of the financial consequences] than when they get married," he said. "People get married but they don't know what they're in for."
Though courts in the United Kingdom usually don't recognize premarital agreements, he said that they might be more willing to take pre-partnership contracts into account, particularly if the separation is amicable.
Currently, the United Kingdom recognizes civil partnerships formed in other countries -- including those made under the Vermont's Civil Union Act.
However, he said that Americans who wished to get a dissolution in British courts would actually have to live in Britain and not simply be non-residents "shopping around" country by country for a better agreement.
Yesterday, Kim Beatson, an attorney with Lesbian and Gay Lawyers Association, said that fewer than 1,000 solicitors and barristers dealt with all matters arising out of civil partnerships, a number that probably wouldn't increase soon.
Generally speaking, she said that most of the men and women now entering into partnerships were already in long-term relationships lasting for years and were less likely to split up in the future.
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