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Marriage or No, Gay Couples Face Quagmire of Legal Hurdles

Article excerpt

Being unable to marry places longtime committed couples such as Mary Bishop and Sharon Baldwin of Broken Arrow into a kind of legal limbo, with issues including taxes, health care, retirement benefits and inheritance.

"Sharon and I carry around with us in our luggage all of our legal documents that give each other rights that we would automatically have if we were married," said Bishop.

Those include their living wills, health care proxies and durable powers of attorney.

If one of them is hurt somehow and cannot make decisions, "We want the other one to be that person who has that power," Bishop said.

Being able to produce those documents would help preserve their sense of familial relationship during a time of crisis, she added.

Baldwin and Bishop have been together almost 12 years. They underwent a commitment ceremony in Florida in 2000.

Baldwin said having the documents drawn up to outline their legal wishes cost about $1,300, much more than a marriage license.

"There may be young gay couples out there who are just struggling to get by week to week, and they don't have $1,300 to give a lawyer," she said.

The benefits of legal marriage extend into other areas, Bishop said.

"The government provides financial benefits or incentives for people to get married," she said, stressing that those are not the most important reasons. "It rewards people for that."

As just one example, she said, when one partner in a marriage dies, the surviving spouse can receive Social Security benefits in retirement.

"Then there's the issue that we're not even allowed to choose whether we want to file our income taxes separately or jointly, like married couples have the right to do," Bishop said.

Even in states with more gay-friendly policies, such as Massachusetts and California, couples must file their income tax returns using their federal status, and federal law does not permit same-sex couples to file jointly, Baldwin said.

Bishop said that recognized family members can be put on an employee's health insurance, whereas a gay partner cannot, unless his or her company provides domestic partner benefits.

Baldwin estimated that 500-600 companies may provide such benefits.

Some might say that the government has no right getting involved in marriage in the first place, Bishop said.

"The fact is, it already does," she said. "But it treats people differently."

Bishop said there are more than 1,000 provisions in federal law that relate to marital status, and give rights and benefits to spouses.

Bishop, Baldwin and another couple challenged Oklahoma and federal laws banning gay marriage in 2004. The case is currently on appeal before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Bishop said she and Baldwin chose to make their legal stand where they live rather than moving to, say, California. …