Age no bar to same-sex marriage

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Barbara Ruben

Richard Freitag, left, and Larry Shaw, of Arlington, Va., got married in Montreal in 2006. Same-sex marriages are legal in Maryland and the District of Columbia, but not in Virginia. While a recent Supreme Court decision paves the way for same-sex married couples to receive many federal benefits, spousal Social Security and Medicare benefits depend on state law. Freitag and Shaw fear they will have to move out of Virginia when they retire.
Photo courtesy of Larry Shaw

When Imani Woody met Andrea Macko 13 years ago, it was love at first sight.

“She was sexy and cute. She had all the qualities I wanted in a person. She was a sweetheart. She just kind of balanced me,” Woody said.

In 2005, they had a “holy union” at their church, the Metropolitan Community Church of Washington, D.C., because marriage between same-sex couples was not legal in the area at the time. Five years later, soon after same-sex marriage was legalized in the District of Columbia, they went to the courthouse and became legally wed.

That simple act alleviated a chronic worry about myriad financial and legal issues, from estate taxes to healthcare power of attorney to Social Security, because they now have the same rights as heterosexual couples.

“As I get older, it’s important that we’re protected just like other couples are protected,” said Imani Woody Macko (they combined both their names as part of the marriage). “But beyond all the legal terms, on a human level, I can be married to the person I love who is my life partner and soul mate.”

A new era

Change has come quickly to the marital landscape of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community, with the Supreme Court striking down a key provision prohibiting same-sex marriage in the Defense of Marriage Act in June, and Maryland voters approving marriage equality last November.

For older members of the LGBT community, it’s a seismic shift many never imagined they’d witness.

Woody Macko recalls growing up in an era where being gay was thought to be a disease by the American Psychiatric Association, and sexual relations between people of the same gender was against the law. Marriage equality is one more step in moving from the margins to the mainstream, she said.

“Things are happening so fast. I went to a LGBT reception at the White House this year. Just having “LGBT” and “White House” in the same sentence is so surreal,” she said.

LySandra Brady, who married Barbara Goldberg in 2008 in San Francisco, has also been amazed by the rapidity of change.

“I always thought, ‘We’ll never see it in our lifetime,’ but we have,” said Brady Goldberg, 63, who also added her spouse’s last name to her own when they married.

Changes to laws

It’s not just the growing number of states that now allow same-sex marriage — 13 from California to Maine — but the plethora of laws and benefits marriage affects.

“Although there is still work to be done to make sure all legally married older same-sex couples will be entitled to the same benefits, many will, for the first time, be able to access the more than 1,100 federal benefits — from Social Security to the Family and Medical Leave Act — that can help improve their health and economic well-being,” said Aaron Tax, director of federal government relations for the national nonprofit group SAGE (Services and Advocacy for Gay Elders).

But accessing these benefits may not always be a simple matter. Sometimes it matters what state you live in, while for other statues it’s where you married that counts. That can make things complicated for couples in the metropolitan Washington area, where the District and Maryland recognize same-sex marriages, but Virginia does not.

Ask Michele Zavos, a lawyer in Silver Spring, Md., whose practice focuses on LGBT issues, how married same-sex couples can access federal benefits, and she responds with a wry smile, “The answer to everything is ‘it depends.’”

For the legions of federal employees in the Washington area and elsewhere, the Office of Personnel Management will use the place of marriage as the determining factor. So if you married in a jurisdiction in which same-sex marriage is legal (such as Washington, D.C.), you can tap into an array of federal spousal benefits — from health insurance to time off to care for a sick spouse — even if you live in Virginia.

On the other hand, eligibility for Social Security benefits depends on where you live. Normally, when a married person dies, their spouse can start to collect the deceased’s Social Security benefits if they are higher than their own benefits. With a same-sex couple, however, that would depend on whether they live in, say, Maryland (where the answer would be yes) or Virginia (where the answer would be no).

Medicare also does not currently recognize same-sex marriage in states where it’s not legal, with the same skewed results.

What laws apply to paying federal taxes is still up in the air, according to Zavos. Right now, married same-sex couples in D.C. and Maryland file as married couples (often ending up paying higher taxes), but not in Virginia.

And then there are state laws, such as estate taxes. It’s not quite as complicated as it could be because Virginia doesn’t have an estate tax.

One reason for older same-sex couples to get married in D.C. and Maryland is to simplify inheritance, Zavos said. Spouses inherit without estate tax. But for big estates, couples who aren’t married could be in trouble. There’s a $1 million exemption for everyone, but anything over that is taxed at about 16 percent. And Maryland also has an inheritance tax for non-spouses.

Zavos, 62, who herself wed her longtime partner three years ago in Washington, D.C., takes a fairly pragmatic view of getting married.

“To me, if you just go in and sign a piece of paper, you’re done. Have a hug. Don’t tell anybody. And it gives you all those privileges,” she said.

In fact, the effect of marriage itself was so insignificant to them that one year Zavos and her wife forgot to file as a married couple when doing their taxes.

She said she sees far more younger couples getting married than older ones. “People my age make a very conscious decision whether they’re going to get married or not, whereas it’s not like that with younger people.

“People my age have a harder time saying ‘wife,’ ‘husband’ or ‘spouse.’ But for my clients under 35, there is just no issue whether they’re going to get married. They’re just going to do it. It’s just very mainstream,” she said.

Love stories

But many other couples look at a marriage a bit more romantically than Zavos.

“It was just a warm feeling in my soul when I met her,” recalled LySandra Brady Goldberg about her wife, Barbara. The Alexandria, Va., couple met through LySandra’s niece and Barbara’s daughter. They began living together discretely in 1998 because Barbara was in the military.

LySandra began asking Barbara to get married well before it was legal in the United States. “But I told her, ‘I’m not going to get married until it’s legal; I’m not going to do it if it’s not kosher,’” Barbara, 61, said.

She agreed after she retired from the military, when California legalized marriage. Their children (they have four between them, as well as four grandchildren) even bought them their plane tickets, and they married in a synagogue in San Francisco.

Not only are the two a same-sex couple, but Barbara is white and Jewish, while LySandra is black and Catholic.

But they even got Barbara’s mother’s blessing: “She told me she was just glad we weren’t living in sin anymore,” Barbara laughed.

For LySandra, “This was a really big deal for our children. Our kids introduce us as their two moms. They know this is a regular family, just like any heterosexual family.”

Richard Freitag and Larry Shaw decided to get married as a practical matter when Shaw’s employer, Disney, announced it was expanding benefits to include gay marriage in 2006, including pensions that would continue for a surviving spouse. The two had met at a gay pride event in 2002.

The Arlington, Va., couple married in a small ceremony in Montreal that year using vows they’d written. Afterward, they had two large parties, one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast, complete with wedding cakes.

“Once we got married, we were both surprised by the significance it had for us emotionally. The wedding started out as something we were doing to satisfy requirements. But going through the process of planning and the celebration afterward brought the significance of it into focus,” said Freitag, who turns 60 this month.

About a month after they got married, a Disney employee newsletter came out with its usual pictures of marriages and births.

“There we were with the recently wedded couples. It meant so much to be treated like everyone else. Along the same lines, Larry’s coworkers threw a ‘shower’ for us at the office the week before we got married,” Freitag said.

But as Virginia residents, they wish laws that apply to same-sex couples across the Potomac would be valid for them as well.

“We will give the state of Virginia a couple years to find their way. If they don’t, or the law doesn’t force them to by the time we retire, we will move to Maryland or D.C. If we are forced to do that, we will boycott Virginia,” Freitag said.

“We will not shop or buy anything in Virginia. We’ll avoid toll roads and using airports in Virginia as much as possible, anything that could potentially give the state our money.”

But he thinks both legal and societal acceptance will continue to evolve.

“If we walk hand in hand, sometimes we get a cross look, but more often we get smiles. Or people simply don’t notice at all, which is great,” he said. “I believe this sort of behavior, normal affection between couples, over time helps society move forward.”