A federal judge’s decision to delay the state’s domestic partnership law until a hearing Friday, Feb. 1, has exacted an emotional toll on same-sex couples.
But it also carries financial costs for those couples as well as for the state, which is defending the new law that had been scheduled to take effect Jan. 2.
The Secretary of State’s Office estimates it has spent $30,000 so far in lawyers’ fees fighting the challenge to the domestic partnership law from the Alliance Defense Fund, a Tennessee-based right-wing law firm. And Basic Rights Oregon, which represents gay and lesbian couples in the lawsuit, has raised $50,000 to cover its legal fees for the suit.
Calculations are less precise for the cost incurred by same-sex couples from the one-month delay in the law, or from a longer postponement if U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman ends up clearing the way for domestic partnership opponents to put a proposed repeal on the November ballot.
Based on numbers from the State Registrar for Vital Records and estimates from lawyers and accountants who specialize in working with same-sex couples, the financial impact of delayed domestic partnership could total much more, collectively, than tens of thousands of dollars for same-sex couples.
Let’s use Erin Sexton-Saylor and her partner of five years, Melissa Sexton-Saylor, to explain the math.
When Melissa gave birth in 2005 to the couple’s first child, Vivian, Erin had no legal parenting rights. To gain those rights, the couple retained a lawyer to help navigate an adoption process that took six months.
“That’s a very long time to go without legal rights for my child,” says Erin Sexton-Saylor, currently pregnant with the couple’s second child. “We had a lawyer when we decided to get married–we needed to write wills and we needed power of attorney for each other.”
The Portland couple estimates they spent about $2,500 on lawyer’s fees over the past three years to cover these basic legal needs, including legally making each other dependents, and completing a second parent adoption process—something married heterosexual couples don’t need to do.
“It’s definitely cost us more to be gay than it would to be straight,” Erin says.
According to an October 2006 report on same-sex couples from the Williams Institute—a national LGBT think tank based at UCLA—there were 10,899 same-sex couples in Oregon in 2005. If one in five of those couples incurs expenses similar to the Sexton-Saylors’ over the next year because the state lacks an active domestic partnership law, the total cost would near $2 million.
And then there are the loopholes, hoops and tricks involved with same-sex couple tax filings, says Lynn Spitaleri Handlin, an accountant who frequently works with gay and lesbian couples.
“It’s a nightmare, tax-wise,” Handlin says. “In heterosexual filings, it’s ‘what’s mine is yours.’… Say there’s a working-family tax credit that, if the couple is low-income, it would be a significant savings difference if they could get legally partnered.”
Karynn Fish, BRO’s communications director, says she hears horror stories every day from couples financially harmed by their current state of limbo: couples who canceled one partner’s health insurance, for instance, so they could both be covered by the other partner’s superior plan, only to be left without insurance for at least the month of January, if not longer, while the legal battle plays out.
And if the legal battle extends past Feb. 1, or if the law ends up going to the ballot for a voter decision, the costs—legal, accounting and others—will continue to mount.
Are there any resources out there for same-sex couples who can’t afford those types of services?
“No,” Fish says. “That’s why we have [the new] law.”
FACT: The Williams Institute estimates there were 3,438 same-sex couples in Portland in 2005.