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Making Relationships Legal 

by CATHERINE D. WILLIS & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & eventeen years after the fact, retired child and family therapist Ann Marie Floch still tears up when she recalls being asked to leave her critically ill partner's bedside in Sacred Heart Medical Center's intensive care unit in 1990. Janice Packwood had eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS), a rare and often fatal condition caused by a toxin in the over-the-counter food supplement L-tryptophan. Her major organs were failing, especially her lungs. Death seemed imminent.





Only family members were allowed in the ICU after visiting hours, Floch was told. The hospital's staff regarded the very closeted couple -- together more than a decade at the time -- as mere friends and roommates, not devoted partners. So Floch drove home several nights in a row, engulfed in fear and frustration, unsure whether she would ever again see her soul mate alive.





Were that situation to happen today, Floch would have the legal right to stay with her partner.





Senate Bill 5336, signed into law by Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire on April 22, creates a Domestic Partnership Registry that provides basic protections related to health care decision-making and access, autopsies, funeral arrangements, organ donations, inheritance and, in a few cases, health and pension benefits. It applies to same-sex couples and to unmarried heterosexual couples when one member is 62 or older.





Less contentious than a civil union bill that died in committee early in the legislative session, SB 5336 nevertheless generated spirited debate in both legislative chambers. On March 1, the Senate approved the bill by a vote of 28 to 19. Six weeks later, the measure passed in the House on a 63-35 vote.





Lawmakers generally split along party lines, with Democrats favoring the legislation, Republicans opposing.





The votes come in contrast to the Washington state Supreme Court's 2005 ruling in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act and against same-sex couples.





Even before the vote, Rep. Lynn Schindler (R-Spokane Valley) literally begged House members to reconsider the outcome that everyone expected. She spoke passionately about "the road we are going down," warning of the dire consequences to civilization posed by the pending bill.





Rep. John Ahern (R-Spokane) bemoaned the Legislature's Democratic majority, and declared it "a very sad day."





Supporters were more sanguine, especially the House's openly gay members, four of the companion bill's 56 co-sponsors: Joe McDermott, D-Seattle; Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver; Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle; and Dave Upthegrove, D-Seattle. Spokane's 3rd Legislative District House members, Timm Ormsby and Alex Wood, also co-sponsored the bill.





"People aren't going to change their minds overnight on this issue, and we need to respect that. We need to bring them along. And that's what we're doing, one step at a time," said Moeller, alluding to the fact that domestic partnership is not marriage.





"We view this bill as an emergency protection act," says Barbara Green, interim executive director of Equal Rights Washington (ERW), a statewide advocacy group. Her organization applauds the new law but laments its limited scope. She notes that there are some 400 state protections and more than a thousand federal protections routinely afforded to heterosexual couples through civil marriage.


SB 5336 addresses about a dozen of them.





"This is not equal marriage, but I do believe that in my lifetime I will see marriage equality," says longtime gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) activist and former Spokane City Council member Dean Lynch, chairman of Citizens Advancing Equality, a recently established Spokane-based political action committee.





SB 5336 won't change the situation of Spokane resident Bridget Breneman, 32, whose partner of nearly 10 years, Natalie Breneman, died just three weeks ago. Thirty-nine-year-old Natalie, who had seemed healthy, died suddenly in her sleep. Authorities have not determined an exact cause of death but an autopsy revealed an enlarged heart.





"I'm so fortunate," Bridget repeated several times during the course of a 20-minute telephone interview. Her good fortune, it turns out, is that she enjoys a warm relationship with her deceased partner's parents. Under current law, they could claim all of their daughter's financial assets because she passed away without a will.





Both of the Breneman family's cars were registered to Natalie, Bridget explained. One of the vehicles will revert to the bank, but Natalie's parents will help her secure title to the other.





Ownership questions of this kind will be more easily resolved for registered domestic partners. The new law does not include parental rights or child custody, however.





Because Bridget carried and gave birth to the couple's two boys, ages 3 and 5, she is recognized as their biological mother. The law does not grant a surviving partner in a same-sex relationship automatic parental status, even when that partner has been a co-parent from the beginning. Had Natalie been the children's birth mother, Bridget allowed, their family might now be facing nightmarish legal challenges.





The commitment ceremony the Brenemans held in 1999 celebrated their mutual love but did nothing to safeguard their family. Despite her grief, Bridget spoke on the record for this article to encourage others to take all necessary legal steps to protect each other and their children.





Attorney Richard Sayre, whose practice focuses on senior law, domestic partnerships and estate planning, called the registry "a first step toward too-long-awaited equality." While he wishes the Legislature had gone further, he acknowledges that this law does extend some rights. The legal system thrives on precedent, so a right granted today becomes a basis for more rights tomorrow, Sayre says.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he new law will also benefit senior citizens who are in serious relationships, but who are hesitating about tying the knot. "Remarriage is a serious issue for seniors," says Lauren Moughon, advocacy director for AARP Washington, which did not take a position on the creation of a Domestic Partnership Registry. "This bill may help."





The Washington State Senior Citizens Lobby actively supported SB 5336. Says Bruce Reeves, president of the nonprofit group, "It's really a civil rights bill." He discussed the large number of seniors in communities across the state who "are linking up in loving relationships ... for companionship and economic security."





Older couples choose not to remarry because one or both partners could lose Social Security survivor and private-pension benefits. Others cannot wed without jeopardizing public assistance funding or access to state-paid health care service.





But cohabitation takes an emotional toll on seniors long socialized into acceptance of traditional marriage: No elderly couples would speak on the record for this article. (One woman explained that her friends and neighbors believed she and her longtime companion were married and she didn't want to undermine that misperception.)





Attorney Sayre elaborates on this thought: "My experience is that most seniors in that situation have had some kind of church ceremony, a blessing of the union. There's no civil authority, no marriage license." The availability of the new Domestic Partnership Registry will be a positive for them, he says. "It is extremely important to them to have a societally recognized legal relationship."





He tells of a case in which an older couple who were deeply religious had married each other because they were not comfortable living together. Soon thereafter, the husband developed dementia. He needed costly long-term care and did not have long-term care insurance coverage. Despite her limited assets, the wife became financially responsible for his care. To save her property, she had to divorce him.





"No one should be faced with such a choice," says Sayre, "yet that is the reality for married people. And for seniors, the risk is even greater."





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & D & lt;/span & uly registered domestic partners will receive a certificate. For many, it's a legal document that provides peace of mind, says Reeves: "It's like a community stamp of approval."





The registration process will begin on Monday, July 23, according to Joanie Deutsch, acting communications director for the Washington Secretary of State, whose Corporations Division is responsible for maintaining the Domestic Partnership Registry under SB 5336. Forms can be downloaded from the Website (www.secstate.wa.gov) or may be obtained from a county clerk's office.





Couples may register as domestic partners under the new law if both parties are at least 18 years old, share a residence, are capable of consenting to the relationship, are not married to or in a domestic partnership with anyone other than the person with whom they are entering into partnership, and are not related any closer than second cousins. Would-be domestic partners must be of the same sex except for heterosexual couples with at least one member over the age of 62.





Declaration forms must be completed, signed, notarized and returned to the Secretary of State's office along with the designated filing fee, capped by the law at $50. The actual fee had not yet been set at press time. The partnership will then be recorded in the registry and partners will be sent certificates of partnership.





Just as the partnership rights of marriage end when a couple divorces, a domestic partnership can be terminated upon the filing of the proper form and payment of the fee. This feature will eliminate the need for partners to rework their wills when a relationship ends.





"We've had all our legal work in order for years," says Janice Packwood, 64, who continues to suffer periodic life-threatening episodes of EMS. "But we plan to register as soon as we can."





Two years ago, when Packwood developed major heart problems, the cardiac care staff at Sacred Heart "couldn't have been more accepting and accommodating," reported Floch, 60, her partner of now almost 28 years. "We're making progress."





The couple came out publicly in 2004. They are regular volunteers at Odyssey Youth Center, where the clientele call them "the grandmas."


"I feel a lot of shame about my staying closeted for so long out of fear," says Floch. "These kids need role models. They need to know that we have long-term relationships. We should have been out a long time ago, but we weren't."





Adds Packwood, "We want them to know that you can have a good life and you can have it together. This law is icing on the cake. Full equality would be even better."

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