Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Article excerpt

With as much as $40 million at stake, the high-profile split between former E*TRADE chief Kathy Levinson and her partner demonstrates the importance of legal marriage protections--especially when it comes time to call it quits

During her nearly 20-year relationship, Jennifer Levinson considered herself married in every sense to her partner, Kathy Levinson.

On many counts, the Levinsons mimicked the Ozzie and Harriet model of the American family: While Kathy moved up the corporate ladder to become chief operating officer of E*TRADE, the wildly successful online brokerage firm, Jennifer stayed at home and took care of their two children and the house. "If you go back to the 1950s model, Kathy was the husband, and I was the wife," Jennifer says.

There was, of course, at least one crucial difference between Kathy and Jennifer and Ozzie and Harriet: Kathy and Jennifer didn't have a marriage license.

There are many indications, however, that they would have married if it were legal. Though Kathy is the biological mother of their two young children, Jennifer adopted them. Jennifer even legally changed her last name to match Kathy's.

And last year their personal relationship turned highly public when Californians were asked to vote for a ban on gay and lesbian marriage. The Levinsons became national poster girls for same-sex marriage, speaking out against the referendum and forking over $300,000--as well as helping to raise hundreds of thousands more--to help finance the unsuccessful campaign to defeat it.

Until the two broke up in April 2000, Jennifer says she thought the relationship "was equal in every way--including financially." But ever since the bitter split, the two have been locked in an acrimonious who-gets-what squabble. When Kathy retired in May 2000 from E*TRADE, her net worth was estimated at as much as $40 million. And as Kathy's de facto wife, Jennifer says she deserves half of everything.

But married is a legal term, and "we [gays and lesbians] still don't have it," says Cliff Staton, a spokesman for Kathy Levinson. (Levinson declined to talk with The Advocate.) "We're not guaranteed the rights of married people," he says--including the same rules of divorce.

With the exception of Vermont, where a same-sex couple wanting to dissolve its civil union can go through the same family court system as married couples wanting a divorce, there is precious little legal framework for same-sex couples who call it quits.

"At best," says Suzanne Goldberg, an assistant professor of law at Rutgers University in New Jersey and a family law expert, "the law treats a same-sex breakup as a business deal between two people about property. It's highly dependent on whatever separation agreement the couple may have. It's done without the complex background rules of divorce, which take into account the context of sacrifices and decisions two people make as a family unit. Divorce rules have evolved to ensure the partner in the weaker financial position is not left penniless. But when gay and lesbian couples separate, it boils down to who holds the purse strings."

The irony, of course, is that "one of the best arguments for gay people's freedom to marry is divorce," says Evan Wolfson, director of the Freedom to Marry Project in New York City [see Wolfson's Commentary on page 34].

"When straight people marry, it's understood that they acquire certain property rights simply as part of the status of marriage," says Erica Bell, an out lesbian partner at the New York law firm Weiss, Buell, and Bell. "As long as gays and lesbians are denied the right to marry, we're denied those property rights as well. It's all about status--plainly put, we just don't have it." Just like in marriage law, she says, gay people are virtually invisible in divorce, legally speaking.

In only one state besides Vermont has there been significant legal recognition for gays and lesbians who end their relationships. …

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