Planning for unmarried and same-sex couples

January 2, 2013

New York is only one of four states that still has not defined what marriage consists of, leaving many couples confused and unprepared for the future. The majority of the other states define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. This issue may not seem important, but there are over fifteen hundred federal and state laws (including child visitation rights, power of attorney, and tax benefits) in which benefits, rights and privileges are contingent on marital status.
New York has made the news recently because of the landmark decision of Hernandez v. Robles which holds that denying marriage to same-sex couples violates New York’s constitutional guarantees of equality, liberty and privacy for all New Yorkers. The trial court decided the case in February 2005 and the case was appealed to the appeals court with oral arguments scheduled to start in the fall. The trial court decision means that the New York City clerk may no longer deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Since the case was appealed, the judge’s decision is not yet valid.
State Supreme Court Justice Doris Ling reasoned it unfair that in New York the “plaintiffs couples may not own property by their entireties; file joint state income tax returns; obtain health insurance through a partner’s coverage; obtain joint liability or homeowner’s insurance; collect from a partner’s pension benefits; have one partner of the two-women couples be the legal parent of the other partner’s artificially inseminated child, without the expense of an adoption proceeding; invoke the spousal evidentiary privilege; recover damages for an injury to, or the wrongful death of, a partner; have the right to make important medical decisions for a partner in emergencies; inherit from a deceased partner’s intestate estate; or determine a partner’s funeral and burial arrangements.”
In addition to marriage, New York has no laws either allowing or prohibiting domestic relation agreements or civil unions between same-sex couples. Unlike marriage, civil unions and domestic partnerships are invalid outside the state in which they occur and do not provide any federal marriage benefits. Because New York does not have any civil union laws giving certain rights to gay and lesbian couples, it is important to create a domestic relationship agreement with the help of a knowledgeable estate planning attorney.
It is crucial to plan ahead because unmarried partners face a lot more obstacles than their married counterparts. Issues that affect domestic partners such as power of attorney have recently surfaced in the wake of Terri Schiavo case. In addition, if you plan on sharing all or even a part of your estate with your partner, it is critical that the details are recorded in a written document. If you are currently living together with a partner, it may be necessary and surely advisable to speak to a specialized estate planning attorney to help create a domestic relationship agreement to ensure that you and your loved ones are protected.