Some say that marriage gives security, stability and safety to couples, families and society. Today’s mix of marriage laws does none of that for same-sex couples: Simply crossing state borders can literally change their relationship.
According to David Rosenblum, legal director at the Mazzoni Center, “Many of the issues that are tied into marriage are focused on Social Security, pension and other retirement benefits. As we age, there are many more benefits that kick in, so that there are going to be more complications that come about because of the confusing patchwork of marriage laws.”
Marriage can serve as an affirmation of a couple’s love and caring commitment to each other. Government views marriage in terms of rights and privileges that are extended to some citizens, but are withheld from others. For LGBT elders, the withholding of those rights and privileges can carry a big price tag, not only in dollars and cents, but in terms of emotional support and stability.
Opposite-sex married couples can share Social Security, health care, pension, veterans and other benefits. Same-sex couples must pay more for the same set of benefits — or may not have access to those benefits at all — solely because of the word “marriage.” As a result, LGBT seniors have less access to the care and services that are available to their heterosexual, supposedly equal, counterparts.
Because LGBT elders do not have equal access to care and services, they face higher rates of chronic and acute illnesses, depression and isolation.
Not only do same-sex couples have unequal access to services, they have fewer financial resources to pay for care and services. Married couples automatically share in critical pension and retirement benefits that help secure their financial well-being. Not so for same-sex retired couples.
When one partner falls ill, the other may literally have to carry legal documents in the ambulance or to the ER so that they can stay with their partner and, when necessary, make health-care decisions on his or her behalf. An unmarried partner of 30 or 40 years may have to show legal paperwork to make sure that a partner’s wishes are carried out at the end of his or her life. Not so for opposite-sex married couples.
Despite working, planning and saving for decades to build lives together, same-sex couples’ lifetimes of planning can be destroyed because they have to pay inheritance tax on what they have built together. In Pennsylvania, for example, when one partner passes away, the surviving partner must pay an inheritance tax of 15 percent on the value of what they inherit from their partner, even on jointly held homes and other assets. Not so for opposite-sex married couples.
Marriage often means the physical and emotional sharing of a home, a safe and stable place in which to live and age well. It is a place where loved ones care for each other throughout their lives. It is a place to share companionship and avoid the perils of isolation. The law automatically gives opposite-sex married couples the benefit of assuming that they mean to leave their home and other assets to their spouses. Not so for same-sex couples. When the same life events happen to LGBT people, “We are strangers under the law,” according to attorney Amy Steerman.
Steerman, who specializes in estate planning, recommends that couples “plan ahead in order to make sure that your partner is secure and that your wishes are carried out, no matter what your marital status.”
In order to make sure that your partner or loved one(s) is taken care of and that your wishes are carried out if you pass away, you should:
— Execute valid wills, powers of attorney, advanced directives and other documentation spelling out your wishes.
— Review and re-sign this paperwork every few years.
— Designate your partner or loved one(s) as your beneficiary of retirement, pension and life-insurance policies.
— Plan ahead for inheritance taxes. Take out a life-insurance policy or set up a financial plan so that you do not lose your home just as you are grieving the loss of your partner.
Just because the marriage patchwork keeps changing, it doesn’t mean you should not control as much of your future as possible.
Ed Bomba is communications chair of the LGBT Elder Initiative. The LGBTEI, headquartered in Philadelphia, fosters and advocates for services and resources that are competent, culturally sensitive, inclusive and responsive to the needs of LGBT elders in the Delaware Valley and beyond. To comment on this column, suggest future topics or for more information, visit www.lgbtei.org
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