Celebrant Shaun Cox gets ready to perform the wedding ceremony as Phyllis Wood, center, and Rhiannan Pierce hold hands Friday at the Hamilton County Courthouse.

First came love, then came marriage.

Now comes the bureaucratic frontier.

For many same-sex couples rushing to get married after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to make gay marriage legal in all 50 states, exchanging vows is far from the finish line. A host of other marital matters — Social Security, taxes, health coverage and adoption rights — are now being reworked.

After Phyllis Wood and Rhiannan Pierce became the first same-sex couple to marry in Chattanooga, they wanted to keep up the momentum. Thinking of worst-case scenarios, they set out this week to get all their T's crossed and I's dotted to secure their rights as a married couple, and — most importantly — so Pierce could formally adopt the couple's 4-year-old daughter.

Licenses issued so far

Few same-sex couples in the region had applied for marriage licenses as of Tuesday afternoon.


* Hamilton: 6

* Bradley: 3

* Rhea: 1

* Sequatchie: 0

* Bledsoe: 0

* Marion: 0

* McMinn: 1

* Meigs: 0


* Catoosa: 1

* Walker: 0

* Dade: 0

* Chattooga: 0

* Whitfield: 1


* Jackson: 0

* DeKalb: 3

The couple anticipated potential obstacles at local government offices like the DMV. The last place they expected to hit a bump was at the federal Social Security office.

But when the two arrived at the Chattanooga office Tuesday morning, ready to change their last names to Wood-Pierce, they were told that their application would have a hold placed on it until frontline officials had more direction on how the applications were to be processed.

"I asked her how it was different from any other couple. I can't understand how they can deny us," Wood said. "They say they're waiting on instructions for couples who were married in Tennessee, because there was previously the ban. I don't even know where to go from here."

Regional Social Security spokeswoman Patti Patterson declined to answer any specific questions about potential delays for newly married same-sex couples, saying only that the agency is "working with the Department of Justice to analyze the decision and provide instructions specific to the decision for Americans who rely on our programs and services."

"A lot of people have just focused on the fact that gay people can now get married. But after they get married, what happens?" said Michael Higdon, associate professor of law at the University of Tennessee, who is an expert on constitutional law and issues related to LGBTQ rights and same-sex marriage.

While many of those issues have been addressed in the two years since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage act in June 2013, the implications of Friday's decision have much broader impact.

"There are same-sex couples who have already been married in other states, and now the state of Tennessee has to recognize them, as do those folks' employers for benefit plans," Higdon said. "There probably will be some delays in administration. These first folks going through the process will have to be pioneers."

So far, there's only been a trickle of same-sex marriages in the tri-state region. As of Tuesday afternoon, area clerks in Southeast Tennessee, Northwest Georgia and Northeast Alabama reported less than 20 applicants total.

Overall, the process of getting marriage licenses issued to same-sex couples in Tennessee has been smooth, said Chris Sanders, director of the Tennessee Equality Project. As of Tuesday, Lake County was the only one of Tennessee's 95 counties not issuing licenses.

"We've been pleasantly surprised at the rate at which state and county governments have complied. We're going to keep pushing till we're 100 percent, but the progress has been very good," Sanders said.

In Georgia, all probate courts are in compliance with the new requirements, said the head of the Council of Probate Courts on Monday.

In Alabama, meanwhile, only half of Alabama counties were giving or willing to give marriage licenses to gay couples, an Associated Press survey conducted Monday found. Advocacy groups representing same-sex couples in the state are now pushing for a federal judge to order reluctant probate judges to comply.

In nearby Jackson County, Ala., officials said they were selling licenses to same-sex couples, and officials in DeKalb County said they had already issued three.

Sanders said he has heard complaints from a few other Tennessee couples who have run into trouble trying to get their names changed at their local Social Security offices and at DMVs.

"We're telling them to continue checking, and if a month goes by it's time to talk to an attorney," Sanders said.

Contact staff writer Kate Belz at or 423-757-6673.