Same-Sex Marriage and Death
What if you were told that your spouse cannot be buried next to you?
Or that you’ll have to pay a large tax bill upon your spouse’s death that your neighbors, who have been married a shorter time than you and your loved one were, won’t have to?
Though the tide has begun to turn, these are among the struggles that same-sex couples have had to face for years, and the hurdles which these couples have had to face serve as a reminder to all of us that with the inevitability of death, we have to strive to make our end-of-life wishes are known and that they can be fully carried out.
Imagine you get a call from your spouse’s sister that your loved one has taken a turn for the worse at the hospital, and the doctors expect them to die very soon. You rush to the hospital, but find that not only will the doctors not tell you what’s going on, but you are barred from entering the room where your partner of 25 years lay dying. For many, this heart-wrenching scenario was all too real until 2011, when the federal government issued a directive that all hospitals that receive federal aid must allow people to designate those who can visit or speak for them in the hospital. Sadly, as recently as this year, there have been cases where individuals have had those rights infringed upon by individual hospitals.
While the movement for same-sex marriage has gained ground on a state-by-state level, with 13 states, the District of Columbia, and several federally recognized Native American tribes all issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, there were until recently many hurdles on the federal level – and the dust is far from settled in Washington. Add to this the states that have passed laws expressly forbidding same-sex marriage, and you’re potentially adding layer upon layer of struggle on top of the grief someone experiences at the death of someone who has stood by them for years.
Even as the United States Supreme Court ruled that the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) – passed in 1996 and defining legal marriage as between one man and one woman – unconstitutional in June, the picture for same-sex couples became even murkier. Suddenly, depending on which part of the federal government you asked, you were either entitled to benefits or you weren’t. The same week that DOMA was ruled on by the Supreme Court, the Department of Defense began providing equal benefits to same-sex couples, including death benefits.
Among these was the right for same-sex spouses of those eligible to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. However, the majority of the remaining national cemeteries in the United States are overseen by the Department of Veterans Affairs. It wasn’t until the beginning of September that the VA was directed to begin offering all the same benefits to same-sex couples that others had been entitled to for years, including the right to be buried in a national cemetery operated by the VA’s National Cemetery Administration. In fact, before that directive from the Department of Justice, same-sex couples had to apply for special waivers for burial – and only one had ever been granted. With such dissonance between two parts of the same government, there are no doubt still hurdles to climb and red tape to cut!
Also, in late August, the IRS announced that it would treat same-sex spouses married in states that recognize their marriages for tax purposes, even if the couple officially resided in a state that either does not recognize or officially bans same-sex marriages. These couples can now file jointly, and are entitled to all the same federal tax benefits other married couples are.
Though there have obviously been significant steps forward for same-sex couples in the last few months, the recency of these decisions may still lead to a great deal of confusion for many, and the pace and inconsistency of these changes highlights the fact that, regardless of legal marital status, it remains vitally important for everyone — especially same-sex couples — to discuss end-of-life issues with their loved ones. Do not simply assume that because you hold a marriage license and are extended certain benefits, you’ll be extended those benefits and courtesies across the board, regardless of where you are in the United States. Communication has long been cited as an important component of any long-lasting, loving relationship. Put those skills to use. Talk to each other about your wishes and write them down.
Avoiding talking about death and dying doesn’t postpone the inevitable, and especially in cases such as the ones mentioned above where the law has been rapidly evolving, it can make things even more difficult. You’ve been partners throughout life, supporting one another no matter the hurdles along the way. Don’t shrink from that teamwork now. Do all that you can to help prepare one another for all of life’s events – especially the ones at the end of it.
Today’s guest post is written by my friend Chad Harris. This from Chad: I’m a graduate student at Hood College in Maryland, where I am pursuing coursework in thanatology for eventual certification as a thanatologist and death educator. Upon graduating (hopefully in May!), It’s my hope to work with military families and veterans, a passion I first discovered while working within the Department of Veterans Affairs health-care system.
I also have a master’s degree in social work from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Central Arkansas.