DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa counties begin processing same-sex marriage applications Monday and the first gay weddings could happen within hours, but details of just what changes and benefits the ceremonies will bring are still being untangled.
However, any questions lingering under the Iowa Supreme Court's April 3 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage aren't expected to slow the initial rush to county recorder offices.
And while Iowa requires a three-day waiting period before marriages can occur, judges may waive that delay and allow immediate weddings. At least one pro-gay marriage group is counting on waivers and has announced its members will hand out bouquets to newly married couples Monday in five of Iowa's larger cities.
"There are people who may feel they have waited a long time and they want to do it as soon as possible or they understand that life is uncertain and something could happen while you're waiting," said Jon Davidson, legal director for Lambda Legal, a New York-based gay rights organization.
Maryfrances Evans and Stephanie McFarland don't plan to marry Monday, but they're not waiting much longer. Evans, 46, and McFarland, 39, will have their ceremony Friday, performed by the same judge who finalized the adoptions of their two daughters, now age 5 and 3.
"It's all about me having the legal right to protect my family, and it's about my daughters being able to grow up knowing that their family is absolutely as valid as any other family," said Evans, who lives in the Des Moines suburb of Urbandale.
The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimated Iowa had 5,800 same-sex couples in 2005, and said U.S. Census figures reported about 19 percent of gay and lesbian couples in Iowa were raising children.
The institute predicted in an April 2008 study that more than 2,900 of Iowa's same-sex couples would marry in the first three years if gay marriage became legal. And based on experiences of other states that allow same-sex union, the institute estimated about 55,000 gay and lesbian couples would travel to Iowa to marry during that period.
Just what tangible benefits those couples will gain from marriage remains uncertain.
Gay marriage advocates said some advantages are clear, including shared employer benefits, streamlined life and other insurance policies, and the ability for couples to make health care and end-of-life decisions for one another.
Evans noted that if she died before her Friday wedding, McFarland would have to pay taxes on their house and whatever else she inherited. Once they are married, "there will be a clear-cut legal line connecting Stephanie and I, period."
Sharon Malheiro, a Des Moines attorney and board chairwoman of One Iowa, a gay advocacy organization, said other issues may require legal untangling, such as the ability to file wrongful death lawsuits or apply for workers compensation benefits if a same-sex spouse is killed or injured.
She said same-sex couples probably will be denied some benefits under the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law barring federal recognition of same-sex marriages. For example, spouses in same-sex marriages may not be able to pay health care plan premiums with pretax federal dollars and may not get reimbursed for their spouse's expenditures from flexible spending accounts for health care.
While health care decision-making rights are anticipated under Iowa's ruling, Malheiro noted that she and her fiance will continue to carry their legal records with them when they travel outside the state, and she advises her clients to do the same.
Iowa state agencies are still trying to determine how their programs will be affected.
Department of Human Services officials said there won't be noticeable changes in the child welfare system, which screens prospective parents by safety issues, not sexual preference. Unmarried people can already adopt or foster children so long as they have the proper training.
Other states have different requirements for adoption, and many foreign governments and international adoption agencies refuse to place children with same-sex married couples.
Human Services spokesman Roger Munns said the marriage ruling's impact is less clear on programs such as Medicaid, food assistance and subsidized health care because those programs are federally funded.
The Iowa Department of Revenue has generally followed federal guidelines on levying taxes. Spokeswoman Renee Mulvey said officials are reviewing the state court's decision.
Public health officials are reworking paperwork to give couples options beyond the traditional "bride" and "groom." Agency spokeswoman Polly Carver-Kimm said officials are considering other changes, including the designations of "mother" and "father" on birth certificates.
Iowa's ban on same-sex marriage was initially overturned by the Polk County District Court in August 2007, but only one couple, Sean and Tim McQuillan of Ames, managed to get married before that decision was stayed the next day.
Sean McQuillan said he's looking forward to other same-sex couples sharing the benefits he and Tim have starting seeing.
"It's been a little bit awkward ... us being the only ones," he said. "It's going to be really great when everyone else gets the same chance at equality that we've had for the last year and a half."
Associated Press writer Melanie S. Welte contributed to this report.