Gay couples in most states can't enter into a formal legal relationship, so instead they live together without one. Sometimes these relationships don't work out, and the couples break up.
There's plenty of laws about what happens to property and children when married couples get divorced. But here's what generally happens with gay couples without a legal relationship:
Type of Court
When married couples get divorced, any legal disputes they have are handled in a family court designed to handle those cases efficiently. Gay couples without a legal relationship instead must take their claims to a regular civil court. The civil court will treat their disputes as if they were two unrelated people with a property ownership disagreement.
The exception is if the couple has children. Then, a family court will handle visitation and custody rights.
Written agreements: If the couple has a written agreement on how to divide the property, then a court will probably enforce it. The court will treat the couple as business partners, so the written agreement will probably be enforced even if it's unfair to one of the partners.
Also, things said in a will are not written agreements. The fact that one partner provided for her ex in her will does not mean that she has to provide for her ex upon breaking up.
Oral agreements: A court would probably enforce an oral agreement about how to divide property, but it's hard to prove that an oral agreement was made. So in reality, a court will likely not recognize it. Unfortunately, a lot of legally unrecognized gay couples rely on oral agreements because it may seem pessimistic to put in writing what happens if they break up.
If the couple agrees how to divide up their property, then there's no need to go to court or file any papers. But watch out–if the couple has children, they shouldn't settle with a private agreement on custody and visitation. They should still get a court to formalize those things.
Joint ownership: Without an agreement saying otherwise, things owned jointly will be divided 50/50. This is true even if one partner paid a greater share of the property than the other. So, if one partner contributed 75% to the price of a jointly-owned house, a court would still probably declare 50/50 ownership. Or, if one partner contributed 75% of the funds in a joint checking account, a court would still assign 50/50 ownership.
Everything else: If there's no joint ownership or any other agreement saying anything special about ownership, then each partner will own 100% of their own property. So each partner will be entitled to 100% of their own bank accounts, real estate, and tangible property.
Neither partner will be entitled to alimony payments from the other. Even if, like in many relationships, one partner chose not to work in order to take care of the home, that partner will still be out of luck.
[Cross-posted at the Gay Couples Law Blog, which discusses same sex family law, estate planning, and taxes.]