A federal judge has recently made a ruling that may prove to be extremely helpful to thousands, if not millions, of LGBT couples in the future. Nearly everyone in America is aware of Windsor and the fact that DOMA has been overturned, but fewer are aware of the legal battle Jennifer Tobits recently won. The case was about survivor’s benefits, and whether states that don’t have marriage equality can deny survivor’s benefits to a same-sex spouse of a couple married in a jurisdiction that does allow same-sex marriage.
Judge C. Darnell Jones II made the argument that it doesn’t matter where the couple is residing when it comes to collecting federal benefits — only where they were married, or “the place of celebration.” Via Think Progress:
The case begins to address post-Windsor questions about whether the federal government continues to recognize same-sex marriages even when couples move to a state that doesn’t. Arguably, Jones essentially ruled that “place of celebration” is all that matters, and since Tobits and Farley’s marriage was valid in Canada, then it’s valid in the United States, but as BuzzFeed’s Chris Geidner points out, he wrote about it in a way that may have avoided setting too much precedent.
Tobits and Farley married in Toronto and they lived together in Illinois, even though Farley’s employer was in Pennsylvania. Jones ruled that it didn’t matter that Pennsylvania law didn’t recognize their marriage, because ERISA is only impacted by federal recognition. Hypothetically, the same standard should apply to where they live. But even though the federal government does not recognize civil unions, Jones used Illinois’ civil union law — which does recognize same-sex marriages from other states as civil unions — to justify the federal recognition:
Illinois, like many states, does not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. By virtue of its civil union statute, however, Illinois can recognize same-sex marriages solemnized in other jurisdictions, such as Canada. An Order from the Circuit Court for Cook County, Illinois, dated October 21, 2011, declared Ms. Tobits a party to a civil union with Ms. Farley and declared her Ms. Farley’s sole heir. Furthermore, that court granted Ms. Tobits’ request to become administrator, authorizing her to take possession of and collect the estate of the decedent and to do all acts required by law.
Although it may be difficult to foresee how this case will be implemented in the future to assure rights for others, the fact remains that this first post-Windsor step has been taken.
The case itself was fraught with complications, largely due to the parents of the deceased, Sarah Ellyn Farley. Her parents, particularly her father, David Farley, attempted at length to get access to her profit-sharing funds before and after her death, going as far as suing the National Center for Lesbian Rights for an article about his mistreatment of her in the past. While on her deathbed, her father harassed her about her will — despite her parents being named as beneficiaries of a half million dollar life insurance plan. He sued the NCLR for “humiliation, embarrassment, mortification,” which seems like a small price to pay for leaving scars on his daughter’s body during her teenage years that would last through her adult life. The lawsuit was dismissed.
As TP goes on to report,
Regardless of those details, this case still represents an important victory for same-sex couples. Tobits had to engage in this suit because Farley’s parents attempted to claim the survivor benefits for themselves, assuming that the couple’s marriage would not be recognized. Had DOMA still been in place, it would have been as if their relationship never existed, and everything Tobits had shared with Farley could have been torn away from her. In a post-DOMA world, legal recognition supercedes homophobic intentions.
Chalk up another victory in the battle for equal rights.
Reposted with permission from Occupy Democrats.
- Federal Judge Rules That Lesbian Widow Is Entitled To Late Wife’s Survivor Benefits (thinkprogress.org)
- Federal Judge Grants Benefits to Lesbian Widow (advocate.com)
- Big Philadelphia Law Firm Has To Give Death Benefits To A Lesbian Widow (businessinsider.com)