Marital benefits

Hank Stephenson//October 21, 2013

Marital benefits

Hank Stephenson//October 21, 2013

GayMarriage-ProGay marriage would bring stability to gay families, prosperity to Arizona, proponents say

Marriage is about love, not tax benefits. But for gay couples in Arizona, the right to marry would mean much more than a ring and a ceremony.

It would mean equal benefits, protections and responsibilities under the law, and a promise that their families will be treated the same as other families, in sickness and in health, even after death parts them.

The rights and benefits government endows to married couples are numerous, and same-sex marriage advocates argue that thousands of loving, committed same-sex couples in Arizona are denied those rights and benefits that go along with marriage. In total, the General Accounting Office counted more than 1,100 statutory provisions in which marital status is a factor in determining or receiving rights, benefits and privileges.

Those rights, benefits and privileges range from the mundane, like joint tax filings, to the deathly serious, like end-of-life decisions. Without the ability to marry, gay couples in Arizona are denied these rights.

But the most persuasive argument couples make for gay marriage, according to Alessandra Soler, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, is simply “because we love each other.”

Soler is part of a collaborative effort to win hearts and minds on gay marriage, preferably before 2016, when campaign organizers are eying a possible constitutional amendment to allow same-sex marriage in Arizona. The campaign is being fronted by a host of gay rights and civil liberties groups, including the Human Rights Campaign, Equality Arizona and others.

“In order to be successful, in order to win, you have to take the time to build support for marriage, and you do that, we believe, by sharing the stories of gay and lesbian couples who are in committed relationships and want to marry the person they love,” Soler said.

To that end, proponents have launched a website with touching stories of gay and lesbian couples who have been in committed relationships for years, but are treated as strangers under Arizona law.

While all the stories are aimed at showing that the couples live just as normal couples do, many of the stories also touch on the fears and complications that have arisen in the relationships because the couples are unable to marry and receive the same protections and rights as married couples are afforded.

Child protections lacking

Nelda Majors and Karen Bailey are two Arizona women who met in college and have been in a loving committed relationship for more than 55 years.  Together, they raised Bailey’s two nieces. But because same-sex couples in Arizona are not allowed joint adoptive rights, Majors has no legal custodial rights to the girls.  She feared that if something had happened to her partner, the children could have been placed in Child Protective Services custody.

Arizona law allows a child to be adopted by someone with a relationship with the child, but custody would not automatically be transferred. There are other considerations. Joint parenting allows both parents to make medical decisions for the child, enroll the child in school or apply for a passport for the child, for example.

Gay marriage proponents and opponents agree that marriage is a stabilizing institution that protects families and nourishes children. But gay marriage advocates argue that if marriage is good for the goose, it should be good for the gander.

“There are protections and responsibility that come with marriage, and the protections are for your family… Children benefit from marriage. And these (gay) couples are families that are raising, and have been raising families for many years. And in many instances the government treats them as strangers,” Soler said.

Until death do us part

Health decisions and end-of-life issues are another source of anxiety for gay couples, especially those who are growing older.

Arizona laws grant domestic partners the right to make health care treatment decisions for a loved one if that person is unable to make or communicate decisions on their own. But domestic partners are fourth on the list of decision makers, while spouses are first. That means an adult child or parents of the patient can overrule decisions by a life-partner.

In death, things get even more complicated for gay couples, said Rebecca Wininger, president of Equality Arizona, a gay-rights advocacy group.

“When we get into someone passing away, if we don’t have the ability to marry, oftentimes the partner is not allowed things like bereavement leave from work. If my partner Wendy is killed in an accident by a drunk driver, I don’t have the right to file a wrongful death lawsuit, I don’t have the ability to draw (her) Social Security benefits,” Wininger said.

And unlike married couples, if one of them were to die, the other would be faced with an estate tax on the other’s assets. If one of them were to die, the other would not automatically be able to make funeral arrangements.

Legal changes

When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, it had sweeping implications on how the federal government treats married gay couples. Couples who are legally married in states that recognize gay marriage are now granted the same rights and benefits that straight couples are under federal law.

The ruling meant gay couples that were legally married in a state that recognizes gay marriage could file joint federal tax returns, receive their partners’ Social Security benefits after death, along with a host of other benefits, even if they live in a state that does not recognize their marriage, such as Arizona. But for some other federal benefits, such as Medicare, spouses are only recognized when they are married and live in a state that recognizes their marriage.

Economic impact

States that have approved gay marriage have seen benefits that went far beyond the gay community.

Wininger envisions an Arizona where gay couples come from around the country to host their dream wedding, boosting Arizona’s economy.

“All of our great resorts could start advertising planning the gay wedding of your dreams. The Biltmore, The Phoenician and all those great places could see an uptick in that,” she said.

New York City, for example, saw an annual boost in the city economy to the tune of $259 million tied directly to the state allowing gay marriages.

Marriage license fees and other fees and taxes have boosted city government coffers by $16.5 million annually, according to a report touted by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The average same-sex wedding in New York had an economic impact of nearly $32,000, money that trickled down through the city’s hotels, restaurants and stores.

People flock to the city from states that do not recognize gay marriage to get married, or to attend a wedding. The New York City study found 68 percent of the wedding guests did not live in New York City, and

50 percent of the same-sex couples seeking licenses had at least one partner residing outside the city. Other states that have recognized gay marriage have seen similar economic boosts.

But it’s about more than just weddings. Large businesses often value diversity in their workforce and would be more likely to move to Arizona if they could attract talented gay employees who felt they could put down roots in the state. In an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in the Hollingsworth v. Perry case dealing with gay marriage in California, more than 100 companies — including Facebook, Google, Nike and Xerox, to name a few — argued that gay marriage bans like California’s Proposition 8, which was struck down by a federal judge, “inflict real and wholly unnecessary injury on businesses.”

“By singling out same-sex couples for unequal treatment, laws like Proposition 8 can impede business efforts to recruit, hire, and retain the best workers in an environment that enables them to perform at their best,” the companies wrote.

If Arizona passed gay marriage, gay people would be more likely to visit the state, move here, stay here and work here, Wininger said.

“Right now, Arizona does not have the greatest reputation for being welcoming and accepting. We are a great tourist destination and, frankly, some people who are gay stay away from here because of (the reputation),” she said.