The laws governing same-sex relationships are changing quickly. Until recently, these changes were happening on a state level and they varied significantly. This was certainly true when it came to recognizing the rights of spouses in same-sex marriages after one spouse has passed away. The laws are still quite complicated and confusing and the recent invalidation of the Defense of Marriage Act on a federal level has already had a huge impact on at least one family.
The situation involves a 37-year-old woman who passed away after battling cancer. In 2006, she and her lesbian partner went to Canada and got married. In 2010, the woman died and an issue arose regarding a sum of $49,000 which she had earned during her time working as an attorney. Her parents, who disapproved of their daughter’s marriage, argued that they should receive the benefits. Her spouse argued that the money rightfully belonged to her. The decision was left up to a federal judge.
Like California, the state in which the case was heard does not recognize same-sex marriages. The debate on who should get the money centered on whether state or federal laws applied. According to the judge, the federal laws acknowledged the marriage and the woman’s same-sex spouse should receive the benefits that were available through the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.
Some people would argue that the woman’s parents should have received the money, as the couple’s marriage was not recognized by the state law. However, federal laws preempt state laws and the judge ruled that their marriage was valid and the surviving spouse therefore had a right to federal spousal benefits.
It is not clear whether the decedent had an estate plan in place which specified her own wishes for how to distribute the assets and financial benefits she had earned throughout her lifetime. However, even the most clear estate plan can come up against challenges by family members and others who disagree with the terms or allowances that were set. This can certainly be true when it comes to same-sex couples. Political, religious or social beliefs can prompt many people to dispute a will they may not agree with.
In order to minimize the chances of an estate plan being challenged, people can work with an attorney to make sure they clearly outline their wishes and address any concerns before they are unable to do so.
Source: Philly.com, “Judge awards late lawyer’s benefits to lesbian spouse,” Joseph A. Slobodzian, July 31, 2013