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Monday, March 28, 2011

Gay Families Pay More, Enjoy Fewer Protections

By Kilian Melloy -

As April 18 looms and Americans scramble to prepare and submit their tax returns on time, gay and lesbian families work harder and pay more for the limited--and, in some states, nonexistent--protections they enjoy. But the "can’t get married" penalty isn’t just a Tax Day problem: For same-sex couples, the burden is a daily reminder of their lack of equality before the law.

The New York Times profiled some of the additional expenses and extra work imposed in gay and lesbian families in a March 23 article.

The article noted that because of anti-gay constitutional amendments and the 1996 federal "Defense of Marriage" Act, same-sex families have almost no rights on the national level, and the protections they enjoy--and even the status of their legal relationship--varies widely from state to state. Only five states and the District of Columbia permit same-sex couples to marry. Thirty states have added amendments to their constitutions that bar marriage equality for gays, and some of those amendments go even further. In Michigan, gays and lesbians are denied any legal recognition whatever for their relationships--meaning that they are not been allowed to enter into domestic partnerships or civil unions.

One Michigan couple was profiled in the article. The women, who have two children, are not allowed equal parental rights because Michigan not only denies same-sex couples legal relationships, but also bars second parent adoption, meaning that the biological mother’s life partner is barred from forging a legal relationship with her children.

In order for the couple, named Kay and Amanda, to provide some semblance of legal protection for their family, they faced a mountain of paperwork. The New York Times reporter who investigated what sorts of protections the family could access without leaving the state required three professionals to determine and explain what would be necessary. What benefits and protections the women could obtain were fewer and less broad than those granted automatically to heterosexual couples through the simple act of getting married--and involved a mountain of specialized paperwork addressing issues from medical emergencies to the untimely death of one partner to taxes and other financial issues.

Taxes are a recurring additional outlay for same-sex couples. In the case of the couple profiled in the article, they were compelled to pay out $3,000 more each year in taxes, compared to what a married couple with the same earnings would pay, simply because they could not file their federal taxes jointly.

Another sore spot for gay and lesbian families being taxed more than their heterosexual fellow citizens is the fact that when they are able to secure health benefits for their same-sex spouses--even in states where marriage equality is legal--the benefits are taxed as a form of income. That’s not the case for married couples.

Reporter Tara Siegel Bernard blogged about the article separately.

"Given the scope of the issues they face, one financial guru was not sufficient," Bernard noted in her blog about the article. "Instead, we had to gather three experts in same-sex issues to weigh in on their situation: a lawyer, a financial planner and an accountant.

"They came up with some creative solutions that attempt to put them on a level playing field with heterosexual married couples, but it’s still pretty lopsided. And it’s likely to remain that way until same-sex couples’ unions are recognized by the federal government."

Readers who left comments at the blog raised other inequities in the way that same-sex families are treated under federal and state law.

"The WORST of all problems is that, since the union is not legal, a couple in which one partner is from another country creates a nightmare, like the one I live through every day," wrote one commentator, who was part of a bi-national same-sex family.

"After ten years of dealing with an HI-BI visa that still has not converted to a green card, we are considering moving out of the country to his, where we are married and enjoy all the benefits therein, like free health care," added the commentator. "My partner has an advanced degree, is a computer savvy entrepreneur, and is the manager of a large showroom which hires American workers," the posting noted.

"I have had to jump through a few extra hoops to provide protection for my partner, but I HAVE that protection for him; collective bargaining has resulted in same-sex domestic partner benefits," another respondent who identified himself as a "college professor in Pennsylvania," wrote.

"But my department is being eliminated, and none of the states in which I’m being considered for a new job provide such benefits. In other words: I’m now facing hurdles, not hoops, and they have been placed in the political landscape, often deliberately, and they reach the clouds." The respondent added, "[T]he simple truth is that--approaching 50--at least one of us will be without health insurance. We simply cannot afford it."

"[T]here are still many federal benefits and protections of marriage that no amount of money can buy--immigration rights, veteran’s benefits, social security benefits to name a few," a third chimed in.

"There are many state benefits out of reach too, like hospital visitations. You can’t write a contract to cover these things. Only when the discriminatory federal Defense of Marriage Act is repealed will there be true protections and equality in federal law for all legally married couples. And only when states enact marriage equality laws will many state protections be afforded to these couples."

"When my partner and I bought a house together, we asked ourselves some of the same questions that straight couples ask themselves: What would happen if one of us died unexpectedly?" wrote another.

"How could we ensure that the other would have a secure future? Life insurance, of course! Except that because we are not married, we had to assume that the other person would be socked with a huge capital gains tax should the other person die. We had to take out essentially double the life insurance to make sure that the other person wouldn’t lose our home," the posting added.

Another commentator took note of the social cost inherent in taxing gays and lesbians, economically as well as in other ways.

"This year, after dealing with two major ’gay couple disadvantage’ issues, I finally said I couldn’t do the charity drive at work; I need a break to recharge my batteries and regain about 15 lbs I lost to stress induced illness," the posting read.

"Unfortunately, no one else took over the charity drive. Who loses? The kids who normally get our company’s charity dollars. Abuse and discrimination is a trickle down concept. When you burn out the caregivers, others dependent upon them lose, too."

Siegel Bernard and co-reporter Ron Lieber wrote an Oct. 2, 2009, New York Times article that spelled out the real-world financial cost of the penalties inflicted on gay and lesbian families, finding that committed same-sex couples pay more--a lot more--over the course of their family life than do heterosexual couples: anywhere from about $50,000 to around half a million, assuming a fifty-year span of shared life.

A Dec. 8, 2009, EDGE article noted that the groundbreaking article constituted a "wide-ranging profile which shattered the myth that gays are more financially robust and advantaged than their heterosexual peers."

Kilian Melloy reviews media, conducts interviews, and writes commentary for EDGEBoston, where he also serves as Assistant Arts Editor.

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