Why marriage matters

Bill was a medical laboratory technician. Scott was an architect.

Bill said he was walking with friends one night on their way to have drinks when he saw a really sexy guy on a motorcycle waiting for the light to change. A bit later they saw the motorcycle parked in front of a bar. It wasn’t the one they were heading toward, but Bill wanted to meet the guy on the ‘cycle, so he convinced his friends to go in. Bill found Scott inside, tried to strike up a conversation. Scott didn’t seem interested, but wasn’t completely unfriendly, either. Eventually another guy that Scott had been waiting for arrived, and it seemed obvious that they were together. Bill’s friends didn’t want to stick around, so he and his friends went to the place they had originally been headed to.

Hours later, Bill was still with the friends at the other bar when suddenly a voice asked if he could buy Bill a drink.

Scott had heard Bill’s friends say where they were going, and once he had concluded some unfinished business with his ex, had come looking for him.

Less than a year later they were living together. They bought a house together. Scott’s family all lived in or near the city, and over time came to accept Bill into the family. Years later, Bill’s still got teary-eyed telling about the first time Scott’s brother’s daughter called him Uncle Bill. “This was the 70s,” he explained. “It was far more common for families to refuse to even meet your brother’s gay lover.”

The house they’d bought was something of a fixer-upper. They worked on it together for years. Even with Scott’s connections in the real estate industry, they hadn’t been able to get a bank to give them a mortgage in both their names. Scott had insisted, then, on drawing up a contract so that the money Bill put into a special account they had set up for house expenses would be recorded as equity in the house. Scott had also insisted on drawing up wills. “He didn’t like to leave things to chance,” Bill told me.

One day at work, Bill got a phone call from one of Scott’s co-workers. Scott had been in some kind of highway accident. Bill hurried to the emergency room. Arriving at about the same time as Scott’s mother.

It was too late. Scott had been pronounced dead on arrival.

Over the next few days, Bill was busy with funeral arrangements. It was all a bit of a blur, of course. All those tedious details seem unimportant in the face of the enormous sense of loss.

“I should have known something was up from the way Scott’s father and brother were acting,” Bill said. “I didn’t really notice until the wake, when I noticed they were both absent.”

When Bill arrived home after the funeral and wake, he found the father and brother along with a lawyer. They had a court order, barring Bill from removing any property from the house until an inventory had been completed by a court appointed agent. Scott’s father was contesting the will, on the grounds that Bill had coerced him into signing it.

Bill couldn’t afford to put up much of a legal fight. The will was thrown out, though the equity contract was not. I don’t know all the the legal details, but the upshot was that Bill had to move out, and was only allowed to take items that he could prove he had paid for himself. The family did have to pay him the equity, thanks to one of the precautions that Scott had set up, but they seized nearly every piece of furniture and nearly every personal item in the house.

Bill wasn’t allowed to take even any book, photograph, or paper that he could not show was his personal property. Because the mortgage was in Scott’s name, the presumption was that the house and all property within was Scott’s. Bill, as far as the law was concerned, was just a roommate. “At one point,” Bill said, “I thought I was going to have to produce receipts for my own underwear. As it was, more than half of my own family photos went to them, because I got tired of arguing over every page in every photo album.”

As part of the equity settlement, he was also forced to sign an agreement he would never try to contact any of Scott’s family members again. Even though at that point Bill really needed the money, he balked at that, until Scott’s brother informed him that if he didn’t, the brother was going to say to the police that he overheard Bill making lewd comments to one of the nepews. It was a lie, but as the brother said, “Who do you think they’ll believe?”

Some time after the last legal document had been filed, Bill received an unmarked envelope in the mail. Inside were some polaroid photographs. Someone had piled all of Scott’s sketchbooks from his years of art classes and beyond, made a bonfire, the took pictures of the fire. “Of course they took all his sketchbooks, and of course they burned them. Half of Scott’s sketches were of men.”

Even when there is a will that specifically names one’s unmarried partner, the law stil considers said partner a stranger, for legal purposes. Blood relatives can contest wills on all sorts of grounds, and any non-relative has a disadvantage in regards to burden of proof.

Marriage, as opposed to civil unions or any other arrangement, changes that. In both formal law and common law principles, a spouse is not just counted as a blood relative, but is automatically the nearest relative. If other family members contest a will, it is considered an intra-familial dispute, and the burden of proof switches.

Yes, Scott died in the early 80s. This may lead you to think that in our more enlightened times this sort of thing can’t happen.

You’d be wrong. There’s the case of the two young men who had been together for several years, until one died in an accident just last year. His family were able to legally prevent his surviving partner from even getting a look at the full police report about how the young man died. The surviving partner was told not to try to attend the funeral, or else.

Or two older men, both retired, had been living together for decades. They’d had a ceremony together years ago and exchanged rings, but their state doesn’t even recognize civil unions. One of the men, as his health has deteriorated with age, began to exhibit dementia. His sister had herself appointed guardian and kicked the other partner out. When the story broke just a few months ago, the partner who had been kicked out had had to sell his wedding ring to get enough money to travel to relatives of his own who would let him live with them.

There will always be people who disapprove of the people their grown children or siblings choose to share their life with. But if the law recognizes our marriages the same as it does any heterosexual couple’s, there are thousands of legal protections and safeguards available to protect us and the ones we love from such people.

Marriage is how we say, both socially, culturally, and legally, “this person is family.”

It’s a right that every adult should be able to exercise.

1 thought on “Why marriage matters

  1. I work for a lawyer who specializes in LGBT law, and we highly encourage all same-sex couples to get legal documents which protect them in the event of serious injury or death. Even in states where same-sex marriage/unions are not recognized, there are a number of documents that you can execute which will make your wishes crystal clear (and legally-binding). You can make sure that your partner has a right to your medical information and visitations if you’re in the hospital, can make medical decisions for you–including end-of-life decisions, can make legal decisions for you if you become incompetent or incapacitated, plus your will can make sure that your partner inherits and is the executor of your estate, if you choose.

    That doesn’t solve problems regarding tax on inheritance, etc., but it does go a *long* way towards making sure your partner doesn’t get shut-out and disinherited by your next-of-kin.

    You do have protection under the law, but ONLY if you execute the proper paperwork IN ADVANCE. Everyone should go do it ASAP.

    (P.S. Even straight couples can have family members who are jerks and contest a will; there’s no helping that, although a well-prepared will can help ensure a win. And you can always do what my mother-in-law did, which is insert a clause that says, “Should any person contest this will in court, and should that person loose the contest, that person shall not inherit anything and his/her portion shall be divided among my remaining heirs.” So, if you go to contest it, you’re gambling on all or nothing. I like it!)

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