In anticipation of US Supreme Court decision on marriage equality, see how a local couple worked around PA DOMA
By Frank Pizzoli
Central to your life
Together 44 years, John, 65, and Gregory, 73, are now father and son, so to speak.
Unable to get married in Pennsylvania, the long-time couple has circumvented the state’s prohibition against same-sex unions.
“We adopted one another!” John said, with the smile of a Cheshire cat on his face. In the process, the couple added a layer of protection to their relationship while the state continues to deny recognition of their same-sex relationship.
“We wanted to protect ourselves from higher inheritance taxes that heterosexual couples do no incur upon the death of one or other spouse,” John explained.
Pennsylvania defines marriage as between “one man and one woman,” a measure signed into law in 1996 by then-Governor Tom Ridge, who now supports same-sex marriage. With the US Supreme Court at press time deciding the fate of California’s Proposition 8, Ridge signed an amicus curiae brief asking the court to strike down that state’s voter-passed referendum overturning the state’s law legalizing gay marriage.
Without legal recognition of their relationship, same-sex couples like John and Gregory face punishing sets of rules regarding state and federal estate laws, inheritance laws, joint state and federal tax filing issues, lopsided health insurance tax rules, and difficulties around social security benefits.
John and Gregory didn’t want to wait for a long-sought legislative or court-ruled remedy to the inheritance tax and other discriminations they face.
Even though a May 2013 Franklin & Marshall College poll says 54% of state residents polled favor allowing same-sex couples to marry legally, the for/against marriage equality battle remains at full throttle in The Keystone State.
April 24 Phila. state House Rep. Mark Cohen (D) proposed legislation legalizing civil unions. House Bill 1178 “would amend Title 23 (Domestic Relations) of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes, in marriage, adding a definition; and providing for civil unions.”
In regular words, Cohen’s bill “would make all state laws applicable to marriage also applicable to a civil union.” The bill allows for reciprocity for civil unions performed legally in other states and recognizes same sex-marriages in other states as civil unions in Pennsylvania. Although an unlikely outcome, if passed couples like John and Gregory would have the weight of unfair rules lifted from their relationship.
Cohen calls civil unions a “middle-of-the-road compromise position between constitutionally banning and permitting gay marriages.” Appeasing anticipated religious dissenters, he said, “Nothing in this bill would require any religion or any clergyman to perform any ceremony uniting people in a civil union. This legislation will merely offer committed gay couples the same legal rights that are bestowed upon married people without the status of marriage.”
If passed, couples like John and Gregory wouldn’t have to complete adoption proceedings, itself a circuitous remedy that may not be the solution for other couples.
One good political maneuver prompts another.
May 7 state House Rep. Darryl Metcalfe (R) re-introduced his bill which amends the state Constitution to specify “marriage is the legal union of only one man and one woman as husband and wife and no other legal union that is treated as marriage … shall be valid or recognized.” That’s on top of the state’s existing Ridge-signed DOMA defining marriage as strictly between a male-female.
Last round Metcalfe introduced his bill with 40 supporters. This time the bill has 27 co-sponsors and none, unlike earlier iterations, are Democrats.
Openly-gay Phila. State Rep. Brian Sims said of Metcalfe’s effort: “There is perhaps no better indication of how effectively we are moving forward on the advancement of LGBT civil rights in this state than Representative Metcalfe’s bill. He has been trying to codify his personal religious beliefs surrounding LGBT Pennsylvanians since becoming a representative and each session, he receives less and less support.”
Back in the everyday world where couples are denied legal recognition of relationships, time is of the essence as the state’s slow as molasses legislative process creeps along with hollow appeasements followed by no real progress.
Tales abound within the region’s LGBT community of families interfering with funeral arrangements because same-sex partners have no legal rights.
“One friend lived with his partner for 27 years. They were both previously married, raised kids, served in the military defending their country during war. And the deceased’s family swooped in and legally kept the guy’s partner from attending the funeral. Forced him right out their apartment. Cruel, so cruel,” said one source who wished to remain anonymous because his own family does not acknowledge his relationship. “I worry the same will happen to us,” he said.
“We first heard of the adoption route from a good friend Nino,” John explains. At 86, Nino, and his partner Drew, 68, wanted to achieve peace of mind by knowing their affairs were in order. For example, in Pennsylvania, same-sex couples face a 15% inheritance tax, a tax that is only 4% if a family member inherits.
Longtime friend of John and Gregory, Attorney Marianne Rudebusch, got the legal ball rolling on the adoption proceeding. It started with “I’ll write your will for your birthday gift,” Rudebusch explained, a gesture that eventually ended up in Dauphin County Court as an adoption proceeding.
For one person to adopt another, including same-sex couples, a hearing is required. Judge Bruce F. Bratton heard John’s plea that he be allowed to adopt his partner of 44 years.
“I didn’t find the proceeding difficult although I was understandably nervous,” John shared. He did have to answer Bratton’s questions. That’s the purpose of the hearing which allows a judge to assess the request.
When asked by Bratton why he wanted to adopt his partner, John answered, “For estate planning purposes.” Although known as a conservative judge, meant here that he may stick to more literal interpretations of law, Bratton could find no legal reason to deny John’s request.
“There’s no real reason in state law not to allow these types of adoptions,” Rudebusch says. That said, those thinking about going the adoption route must have a clear understanding of what it legally means, she stresses.
The relationship established “is one of parent and child,” Rudebusch explains. “Bratton’s decision declares John the parent and Gregory the child,” she clarifies. Once granted the decision cannot be reversed.
Further, if the “child” in the proceeding has living parent(s), the legal basis for that relationship is severed and any inheritance from the biological parent would be taxed at the higher rate. If the “parent” has parent(s), nothing changes.
“Clearly, this arrangement is not the answer for every couple. Only couples who can think through the options and level-headedly decide this is their best option to protect financial assets and other arrangements should consider this,” Rudebusch points out.
“But if adoption is the answer, it removes many potential stressors around growing old, types of care that may eventually be needed, and, of course, in reality, death and dying issues,” Rudebusch says with a lawyer’s measured tone. “It can be a source of great joy and comfort,” she concludes.
When he declared the adoption a go, Bratton looked at John said,” Congratulations, it’s a boy.”