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What is marriage, anyway?

wedding, marriage, gay marriage, same-sex marriage, marriage equality, gay news, Washington Blade, spousal benefits

(Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)


Marriage is generally understood in our society as an emotional and social institution, signifying and celebrating the love and devotion between two people and demonstrating a commitment to that relationship above all others. But marriage is also a business and contractual relationship that is given great deference by the laws of our country, on both the federal, state, and local levels. Once a couple is married, spouses are no longer individuals, but part of a marital unit. On the federal level, there are more than 1,000 rights and responsibilities associated with marriage. On the state and local level, there are usually more than 400 such rights and responsibilities.

The “marital unit” is treated differently in the law than the two spouses were as individuals.  For example, any income coming into the “marital unit” post-marriage, belongs presumptively equally to both spouses, no matter who earned the income. So, if one spouse saves money in retirement, the other spouse is entitled to one-half of that amount if the couple divorces. States and the District of Columbia may treat marriage somewhat differently if the couple divorces.  Accordingly, spouses would be wise to execute a pre-nuptial agreement prior to their marriage, in order to define the couple’s agreements as to how their property would be divided in the event of divorce.

Other impacts of the marriage contract range from taxes to immigration to estate planning to children, and more. As same-sex couples take advantage of new opportunities to marry in the United States, these consequences can be welcome but confusing reminders of just how much marriage matters in American society.

Most of the federal government now recognizes marriages between same-sex couples as long as the marriage was valid where it occurred, known as the “place of celebration” rule.  Locally, Maryland, the District of Columbia and Delaware have marriage equality, while Virginia and West Virginia do not. The federal government applies the “place of residence” rule in some instances, so couples living in non- marriage equality states (non-recognition states) do not have valid marriages under that rule. However, Attorney General Eric Holder has said that the federal government will make every effort to treat all validly married same-sex couples as married for federal government purposes.

Application of tax rates are one of the biggest impacts of marriage. Married couples must file either as married filing jointly, or married filing individually. As a general rule, if couples have a significant income disparity, marriage will reduce their taxes, but if the couple is relatively equal in income, marriage will increase those taxes. Married couples have no choice – they MUST file their taxes as married. Couples that are registered as Domestic Partners in the District of Columbia must also file their D.C. taxes as “married.” Married couples are also eligible for estate tax exemptions, now both on the federal level and in their state of residence if the state has marriage equality, like Edie Windsor. Married couples in Maryland are also exempt from Maryland’s inheritance tax. Also, after Windsor, a couple may be able to amend its federal tax returns to claim certain exemptions and to reduce income that had previously been taxed when the federal government did not recognize their marriage.

For same-sex couples wishing to have children, marriage creates a legal presumption of parentage, meaning that any child born or conceived to one spouse during the marriage is presumed to be the legal child of the other spouse. This can be extremely important to ensure that a non-birth parent continues to have a legal right to custody and decision-making power over the child, even in the event of divorce, or the birth parent’s death or incapacity. However, since not all states have marriage equality, we recommend that even married couples obtain a second-parent adoption or pre- or post-birth order so that their parental rights are recognized in all states.

Employee benefits, immigration, Social Security, the military, taxes, retirement rollovers, criminal matters, and of course, even more areas are impacted by marriage. The law continues to evolve, and there are about 45 lawsuits throughout the country, including two in Virginia, attempting to establish marriage equality in those states that still do not recognize our marriages.  So, even if couples are married in one state, if they move to a non-recognition state, or perhaps are even traveling through such a state, their marriages will not be considered valid if a marriage issue arises in that state.

Marriage does not hold all the answers. As with everything, there may be downsides to getting married, and individual couples must decide for themselves whether the rewards outweigh the risks. For example, if one member of a couple is receiving alimony, that alimony generally will end at remarriage. Or if one member of the couple receives income-based government benefits, marriage may then disqualify that spouse from receiving those benefits.  Couples should consult with an attorney before they marry to discuss the legal risks and rewards of marriage. But, of course, there is more to marriage than all of these rights and responsibilities.  And sometimes, for some couples, marriage does come down to love and commitment, and the legal aspects are just secondary.

Michele Zavos is partner, Zavos Juncker Law Group, PLLC. Cody Perkins is a law clerk at the firm. The Zavos Juncker Law Group practices in all three local jurisdictions.


LGBT Wedding Expo in Frederick

wedding expo, wedding rings, gay news, Washington Blade

(Photo by iStock)

On March 16, Studio C Photography of Frederick presents “Over the Rainbow,” Frederick’s first LGBT Wedding and Fashion Expo. The show will feature more than 30 gay and gay-friendly wedding vendors in all categories. There will be a fashion show with same-sex couples in wedding attire to include M. Stein Tuxedo, private designer dresses, gowns, and suits, and “Under A Hundred” budget-conscious ensembles.

The Expo will be held in the Atrium at the FSK Holiday Inn, 5400 Holiday Dr. in Frederick from 1-4 p.m. There is ample free parking, and the Expo is conveniently right off I-270, I-70, and Rt. 15.

“To date, LGBT wedding shows have been made up of vendors who are there to sell their services, which of course is the point; but not all of them are truly gay friendly,” Susan Centineo, owner of Studio C Photography, told the Blade.  “This show promises vendors who have been screened and who are truly committed to providing red-carpet service for same-sex weddings, and we have added a same-sex fashion show to boot.”

Admission is free, and there will be drawings, raffles, and discounts for same-day bookings with vendors. You may RSVP in advance to qualify for a cash drawing. Email Susan at or call/text 240-446-6085. A few vendor openings are still available.


Marriage: It’s more (and less) than you think

will, gay news, Washington Blade

In most states, if you die without a Will and you are married and that marriage is recognized, your spouse will inherit a share of your estate.


In the eight months since the fall of the Defense of Marriage Act, I have witnessed a huge rush to marriage among friends, clients and our community at large. Many of those people dramatically underestimate the changes that marriage might bring to their lives, while at the same time being lulled into a false sense of security that marriage will solve every potential legal issue that comes along. Of course, it won’t.

Hundreds and hundreds of benefits accrue to married couples. Yet, many of those benefits are misunderstood and do not come automatically. For example, the right to own real estate as a married couple does not and cannot happen unless the deed to that property includes that right. Many of my clients own their homes as joint with right of survivorship. But married couples can hold real estate as tenants by the entirety, which is much better. Far too many of my clients live in a home that is only owned by one of them. If something happens to that homeowner, the other one may be literally out on the street. Not surprisingly, we re-deed many of our clients’ homes, which is neither difficult nor expensive. Where the transfer of title may be impractical or undesirable, we create Revocable Trusts for the purpose of owning real estate.

Wills are another area where marriage has unexpected impacts. In most states, if you die without a Will and you are married and that marriage is recognized, your spouse will inherit a share of your estate. The amount of that share varies and can be as low as one-third. A properly drafted and signed Will can override those rules. For couples with children, the default rules can be even more problematic because minors cannot inherit money directly, either under a Will or because they were named as the beneficiary of a life insurance or retirement account. Worse yet, no matter how much money you leave, they will likely get it all in a single payment on their 18th birthday. Wills can and frequently do establish distribution schemes that make much more sense.

Marriage only solves problems for couples when both of them are healthy and alive.  If either of those should become untrue, then the marriage may count for little or nothing. If your spouse becomes incapacitated, you may have medical decision-making rights, but not the right to manage their separate assets.  That is usually accomplished by general durable power of attorney. Otherwise a guardianship petition will be required, which are typically expensive and time-consuming.  If your spouse dies before you, and you die later without a will, your assets will all be distributed to certain family members with parents typically first in line, regardless of whether that makes sense.

Marriage equality also brings with it the trials and tribulations that our straight counterparts have endured for generations. If you break up in the future, the only way to end that legal relationship is through a divorce. While you are still married, you cannot change your Will to completely disinherit your spouse. If you get divorced, the court will determine how to divide your assets. The court may also order you to pay alimony to your former spouse.  However, all of these potentially adverse outcomes can be changed in a properly drafted prenuptial (and sometimes post-nuptial) agreement. A word of caution: do not call a lawyer the week before your marriage for a pre-nup. I typically advise my clients to allow six to eight weeks.

None of this is intended to discourage anyone from getting married. I am a firm believer in that institution and took the plunge myself in 2009. Rather, I view my job as educating people on the issues, so that they can then make good decisions.

Larry Jacobs has helped hundreds of same-sex couples in the Washington area protect their assets and loved ones through partnership planning. He is a partner at McMillan Metro, P.C. and has practiced law for 39 years. He is admitted to the bar in Maryland, Virginia and D.C. You can learn more about Larry and his practice at


Navigating your family’s new normal

co-parenting, gay news, Washington Blade

The importance of developing a parenting plan and memorializing it in a legally enforceable document before conflict arises between you and your co-parent cannot be overstated.


I recently met with a married couple that separated about a year ago and are preparing to finalize their separation with filing for divorce here in the District. They worked together throughout their yearlong separation to help their children – ages 8 and 5 – adjust to what they call their “new normal.”  The couple’s relationship is amicable and they make a concerted effort to reach joint decisions on parenting issues by considering what is in the best interest of their children. They are fully aware, though, that as their children get older and life moves forward there will be times when tensions mount between them and their relationship to each other as parents will become strained. Their goal now is to do whatever they can to minimize the possibility of court involvement in any future parental disputes.

Many non-married parents – straight and gay – are turning to co-parenting agreements to achieve this goal.  A co-parenting agreement is an agreement between parents that can set forth anything from the moral values the parents wish to instill in their child to agreed upon forms of discipline the parents will or will not use with their child. An effective agreement is drafted in a way that sets forth guidelines for parents to follow that will assist in avoiding and resolving conflicts as parents encounter the inevitable changes life brings. A well thought out and drafted agreement should always provide parents with methods to resolve conflicts without court intervention.

Co-parenting agreements may be entered when your child is born or after you and your co-parent have separated or divorced.  It goes without saying, however, that having these important discussions and drafting an agreement before conflict arises in your relationship with your child’s other parent is often easier than finding that common ground when parents are already at odds with each other.

The beauty of co-parenting agreements is that they can include whatever parents believe is important in raising their child. Agreements typically include clauses detailing which parent will make important decisions regarding their child’s health, education, and welfare, the financial obligations of each parent to the child, and physical custody or visitation schedules that the parents will follow during the school year and summer months. A co-parenting agreement can even include provisions on religious up-bringing, extracurricular activities, geographical restrictions related to a parent’s residence, parameters on where a parent may or may not travel with the child, or even when a parent can introduce their child to a new significant other.

Part of what makes co-parenting agreements so appealing is that they are adaptable to change. An effective co-parenting agreement will set forth factors that parents should consider when making decisions related to their child, as well as the specific process the parents will follow when conflict arises between them.  These agreements can also include clauses requiring parents to participate in mediation or arbitration when they are unable to reach an agreement as to what is in the best interest of their child. Some co-parenting agreements even give final decision making authority to a third party such as a social worker, therapist or similar healthcare provider, when parents are simply unable to reach a decision themselves.

In same-sex relationships, these agreements can be of paramount importance and can often be critical in establishing a non-biological parent’s relationship to his or her child.  If one or both parents reside in a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage or does not permit same-sex second parent adoptions, these agreements can provide a layer of protection to the non-biological parent by explicitly setting forth the parent’s rights and obligations to his or her non-biological child.  Although a co-parenting agreement is not legally binding in these states, the current nation-wide judicial shift in recognizing the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered persons indicates that judges would now be more willing to consider these agreements as evidence of not only the non-biological parent’s relationship to the child, but also the parents’ shared goals in raising their child.

The importance of developing a parenting plan and memorializing it in a legally enforceable document before conflict arises between you and your co-parent cannot be overstated.  It will not only allow you and your co-parent to develop a greater understanding of your respective roles and duties as they relate to your child, but it will help your family – as a whole – navigate your “new normal.”

Meaghan E. Hearn is an attorney at Ackerman Brown, PLLC. Reach her at


Is poly a relationship cracker?

poly, polyamory, gay news, Washington Blade

Sweeping potential deal-breaker issues under the rug will haunt you later.

Dear Michael,


I’ve been with my wife Carol for seven years and she told me from the start that she considered herself polyamorous. This was a little outside my comfort zone but given that she wasn’t involved with anyone else, I didn’t really worry about it and kept dating her. We fell in love and ultimately got married.

We now have a 2-year old daughter. Carol has been seeing her new girlfriend Julie with increasing frequency for the past six months and now she wants to start spending one night a week at Julie’s place.

I’m unhappy for a few reasons. I think it’s presumptuous that I should regularly have to take care of our daughter alone. We’re supposed to be a family unit and I don’t know how I’d explain to my daughter where “Mommy Carol” is one night a week. And Carol’s regular absence from my life — because she’s dating another woman — is already damaging our relationship and making me jealous.

Carol says I came into this relationship with my eyes open. True, but I didn’t imagine the potential problems when I said “yes.” She also says that I should be happy that she’s having a wonderful connection with Julie and that if I would stop being bitter, her greater fulfillment in life would enrich our relationship. I think this is major self-serving B.S. Finally, she offers to give me a regular “night off” where I can leave all the childcare to her. But I like being home with our daughter and don’t want a “night off” — I just don’t want to be left alone with all the responsibility once a week while she is off having sex with another woman.

Is there some way to compromise? Because right now it’s hard to see myself staying in this marriage, and I strongly suspect that Carol feels the same way.


Michael replies:


The two of you have some difficult territory ahead.

It sounds as if you both have gotten into a “my-way-or-the-highway” situation.  What’s needed is for you and Carol to take a serious look at what’s important to each of you and to have a frank discussion where you listen to your spouse with curiosity.

Given that you and Carol had very different feelings about polyamory from the get-go, it would have been useful to have spoken in depth about what a poly lifestyle might mean to both of you before you married and certainly before you had your daughter. However, it’s not too late to talk together about what you each value most, as a first step toward figuring out how to go forward.

You may ultimately decide that you cannot stay in a relationship where your spouse is involved with another woman. But divorce is not a decision to be made impulsively just because you’ve hit gridlock. Especially because you have a young child together, there’s an awful lot at stake in finding a way to preserve your marriage if this is possible. Divorce is usually very tough on children.

Some questions for you to consider: What would it take for you to want to stay in this marriage? Can you tolerate Carol’s other relationship if she foregoes her sleepovers?  Or do you really only want a monogamous relationship?

Another question: Have you and Carol ever considered any rules or boundaries that might allow both of you to be content in your marriage? Such agreements are sometimes helpful, although they are not a guarantee of anything, and people often change their minds about what they are willing to tolerate.

From your description, neither of you is going to get everything you want. But that’s always the case. Marriage pushes us to figure out what’s most important to us. Try to find a way to be open minded and respectful of each other’s preferences for how you want to live your lives. Remember that blaming your partner for inflexibility isn’t going to lead her to shift in your direction.

Because you have some complex work to do, consider working with a skilled couples therapist who can help you and Carol to figure out how to do your best here and to see if it is possible to collaborate on your future. Good luck in finding a way forward.

Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who works with LGBT couples and individuals in D.C. He can be found online at All identifying information has been changed for reasons of confidentiality. Have a question? Send it to


Daughter of lawyer who defended anti-gay Prop 8 comes out, getting married

Lawyer Charles Cooper is helping his gay daughter plan her wedding, says his views on marriage are now "evolving."


N.C. insurer drops gay, lesbian couples

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Blue Cross and Blue Shield, the state’s biggest health insurer, has canceled family insurance policies it sold last month to gay and lesbian couples in North Carolina under the Affordable Care Act, the Charlotte News Observer reports.

Blue Cross, Blue Shield, health, gay news, Washington Blade, North Carolina

Blue Cross and Blue Shield canceled family insurance policies it sold last month to gay and lesbian couples in North Carolina.

The insurer canceled policies of 20 couples — some who were legally married in states that recognize gay marriage — and encouraged them to reapply for separate insurance policies as unmarried individuals. The couples received calls from Blue Cross in mid-January, several weeks after they purchased their family health insurance, and were told their family coverage was invalid, the article said.

Blue Cross’ strategy has stung same-sex couples and gay-rights advocates because the nonprofit insurer offers domestic partner benefits to its own employees. Blue Cross insurance plans offered by large companies in North Carolina also include health benefits for employees and their same-sex partner, the News Observer said.

The problem is traced to terminology in Blue Cross policies that define “spouse” as “opposite sex.” North Carolina insurance law does not prohibit selling coverage to gay couples, but Blue Cross was legally bound by the restrictive contract language in its individual plans, said Kerry Hall, spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Insurance.

Blue Cross has vowed to update the language in 2015.


Pennsylvania advocates differ on marriage strategy

Brian Sims, Pennsylvania, gay news, Washington Blade

Gay Pennsylvania state Rep. Brian Sims

Some Pennsylvania advocates have begun to differ on whether they should push for marriage rights for same-sex couples without first securing statewide anti-LGBT discrimination protections.

Sue Kerr, editor of Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents, told the Washington Blade on Tuesday that the recent announcement by state Reps. Brian Sims (D-Philadelphia) and Stephen McCarter (D-Montgomery County) that they plan to introduce a same-sex marriage bill in Harrisburg seems “a little bit like putting the cart before the horse.”

A Susquehanna Polling and Research survey in May found 72 percent of Pennsylvanians back two bills — House Bill 300 and Senate Bill 300 — in the state legislature that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression in the state. A Franklin and Marshall College poll released during the same month found 54 percent of respondents support same-sex marriage.

“House Bill 300 helps everyone — every single person in our community,” Kerr said. “It’s not defined by our relationships. It’s defined by who we are as citizens, residents of the state.”

Pennsylvania is among the states without an LGBT-inclusive statewide non-discrimination law.

Neighboring New York, Maryland and Delaware are among the 11 states and D.C. in which same-sex couples are currently able to legally marry. A federal judge in Ohio on Monday ordered the state to recognize the marriage of a gay couple that tied the knot at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport on July 11.

The American Civil Liberties Union on July 9 filed a lawsuit against the Keystone State’s statutory same-sex marriage ban.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced two days later she would not defend the law in court.

Josh Shapiro, chair of the Montgomery County Commissioners, on Tuesday announced the suburban Philadelphia county would issue a marriage license to a lesbian couple.

The women, whom the Times Herald newspaper identified as Loreen M. Bloodgood and Alicia A. Terrizzi of Pottstown, wed earlier on Wednesday. They are the first same-sex couple in Pennsylvania to receive a marriage license.

McCarter noted to the Blade that HB 300 has received roughly 20 additional co-sponsors since he and Sims announced the day after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional that they plan to introduce a same-sex marriage bill. He said he hopes HB 300 will have 102 co-sponsors, which constitutes a majority, in the House of Representatives once it reconvenes on Sept. 23.

“We know there is no state so far that has passed marriage equality without having non-discrimination passed,” McCarter said. “Momentum is growing.”

Advocates across the state acknowledged the same-sex marriage bill is unlikely to pass, at least in the short term, because Republicans control both houses of the state legislature and Gov. Tom Corbett opposes nuptials for gays and lesbians.

“There’s a limited amount of resources [that] generally are better deployed in terms of those areas where the result can realistically be achieved,” said Malcolm Lazin, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Equality Forum.

Kathy Padilla, a transgender rights advocate in Philadelphia, noted 32 municipalities in Pennsylvania have passed LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinances. Philadelphia adopted the state’s first gay-inclusive measure in the late 1970s, while the city of Harrisburg enacted Pennsylvania’s first trans-inclusive anti-discrimination resolution in 1983.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter in May signed a measure that many activists have described as one of the country’s most expansive anti-LGBT discrimination laws.

“As we don’t have a statewide non-discrimination bill, pursuing judicial relief here doesn’t close off legislative opportunities or split communities in the same way as other states at all,” Padilla told the Blade, referring to the ACLU’s same-sex marriage lawsuit. “It leaves us all working for these same goals at the same time in different venues — together.”

Ted Martin, executive director of Equality Pennsylvania, a statewide LGBT advocacy group, told the Blade that HB 300 remains a “top priority” for his organization.

He said a Pennsylvania hotel could still legally deny a same-sex couple a room on their wedding night. Martin noted a gay or lesbian Pennsylvanian could still be fired from their job if he or she places a picture of their husband or wife on their desk.

The commonwealth also lacks statewide protections for LGBT Pennsylvanians in housing.

“We have to look honestly at the complete picture,” Martin said. “The heat and conversation around marriage will really allow us to take a good look at how we treat LGBT Pennsylvanians.”


Same-sex couple legally recognized in Colombia

Gay News, Washington Blade, Colombia

Carlos Hernando Rivera Ramírez and Gonzalo Ruiz Giraldo in Bogotá, Colombia, on July 25, 2013. (Photo courtesy of Lina Cuéllar/Sentiido)

Two gay men who have been together for 20 years on Wednesday became the first legally recognized same-sex couple in Colombia

Carmen Lucía Rodríguez Díaz, a civil judge in Bogotá, the country’s capital, solemnized Carlos Hernando Rivera Ramírez and Gonzalo Ruiz Giraldo’s relationship. LGBT rights advocates applauded the couple as they left the court.

“We got married; we are very happy,” Rivera told reporters as El Tiempo, a Colombian newspaper, noted. “We have the same rights that a civilly married couple have.”

Colombia’s Constitutional Court in 2011 ruled gays and lesbians could seek legal recognition of their relationships within two years if lawmakers in the South American country failed to extend to them the same benefits heterosexuals receive through marriage.

The Colombian Senate in April overwhelmingly rejected a bill that would have extended marriage rights to same-sex couples.

The Constitutional Court’s June 20 deadline passed amid lingering confusion as to whether gay couples could actually tie the knot in the country because the 2011 ruling did not contain the word “marriage.”

Rodríguez, whom Rivera and Ruiz petitioned on June 20 to recognize their relationship, ruled on July 11 that the couple could legally marry. Former Constitutional Court President Carlos Gaviria Díaz told the Associated Press on Wednesday that Rivera and Ruiz’s union cannot be legally called a marriage, even though Rodríguez officiated a civil ceremony.

The Constitutional Court earlier on Wednesday rejected Colombian Attorney General Alejandro Ordóñez Maldonado’s petition to overturn Rodríguez’s July 11 ruling.

“They (Rivera and Ruiz) are married and have the same benefits and rights that any heterosexual couple united through marriage have,” Lina Cuéllar of Sentiido, an LGBT website she co-publishes in Bogotá, told the Washington Blade. “The issue is that the contract they signed is not called civil marriage, but today we celebrate that for the first time in Colombia a same-sex couple could say ‘we are married.’”

Marcela Sánchez Buitrago, executive director of Colombia Diversa, a nationwide LGBT advocacy group, agreed.

“Carlos and Gonzalo entered the court single and left married,” she told Radio Caracol earlier on Wednesday. “It is a step forward, it is historic in the country. [Rodríguez] is a judge that dared to give the effects and the procedures of marriage to a same-sex couple.”


New Mexico county issues gay marriage licenses in spite of statewide ban

Doña Ana County Clerk decides NM gay and lesbian couples have waited long enough for marriage equality.