Before I Do: A Legal Guide to Marriage, Gay and Otherwise

Before I Do: A Legal Guide to Marriage, Gay and Otherwise


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Not long ago, same-sex couples had to jump through endless hoops to make their relationships even close to legal. Happily, those days are over. Same-sex couples no longer have to operate as outlaws—they too can have in-laws! But here’s the rub: many gay and lesbian couples, accustomed to living off-grid, are so thrilled to have the benefits of marriage that they gleefully jump into marriage without fully understanding the consequences.

In her first book, Before I Do, leading gay rights attorney Elizabeth F. Schwartz spells out the range of practical considerations couples should address before tying the knot. She explores the rights marriage provides and those it does not. With cameos from some of the most prominent LGBT professionals, Schwartz explains all of the implications of marriage from name changes and getting a license to taxes, insurance, Social Security, and much more.

Substantial chapters on estate planning, pre- and post-nuptial agreements, and organizing finances make Before I Do relevant for all couples, young and older, and a crucial handbook for anyone considering marriage—because, as Schwartz explains, just because you can get married does not mean you should.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781620971543
Publisher: New Press, The
Publication date: 10/04/2016
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Elizabeth F. Schwartz has been practicing law since 1997 and is one of Florida’s best known advocates for the legal rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. Her practice focuses on family formation (adoption, insemination, and surrogacy), divorce, estate planning, and probate. Schwartz lives in Miami.

Read an Excerpt



You don't really need to get married, but marriage is awfully nice.

— Lily Tomlin

After a long battle, the Supreme Court of the United States determined that same-sex relationships are legitimate and worthy of recognition, both at the federal level and in all fifty states. The Obergefell case, decided in June 2015, brought uniformity to a hodgepodge of rights and responsibilities that varied from state to state for same-sex couples. Now we lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people are free to commit to each other under the law of every state, and our commitments must be recognized nationwide.

Not long ago, same-sex couples had to jump through endless hoops to make our relationships akin to a legally recognized marriage. Often we had to work around the law, play the system, and find the loopholes. Denied the right to be at the hospital bedside of our sick partners, some claimed to be siblings and therefore next of kin. When we could not adopt as an openly gay couple, we hid our relationships and adopted children as individuals, not revealing our true families. In some cases we adopted one another, creating a fictional but legal parent-child relationship, just to acquire rights that the law refused to confer on same-sex couples. Creating contracts and using inventive estate planning tools, equality-focused lawyers legitimized our relationships as much as possible. Lawyers accustomed to operating within the confines of the law figured out how to work on the fringes in order to achieve basic protections for gay and lesbian couples within the law.

For the most part, those days are over. We no longer have to operate as outlaws — and we can have in-laws! But here's the rub: many LGBT couples, accustomed to living off the grid and in the margins, are so thrilled to have the opportunity to marry that we are gleefully jumping into marriage headfirst, without concern for the legal and financial consequences. It is easy to get caught up in the excitement over the victories we have achieved, especially when there is a societal expectation that each and every loving and committed couple ought to marry, an act often considered one of life's milestones. Before racing to the altar, it is important to understand that the law can be treacherous. If you are considering marriage, remember this: just because you can get married does not mean you should.

For twenty years I have been helping LGBT families create and dissolve relationships in a particularly hostile legal environment — the wacky, backward state of Florida. I have counseled thousands of individuals and couples who failed to plan properly as they formed unions and families. Failing to plan has terrible consequences. Holding the hands of devastated clients, I only wish that they had consulted me earlier. That is why I wrote this book.

Before I Do is for couples who have been coloring outside the lines and now are considering making their relationship legal. It explains what marriage means — and does not mean. It spells out all the implications of marriage in a straightforward, easy-to-follow style.

Now that we can freely say "I do," we need to know the answers to a few simple questions:

• What are the income tax consequences of marrying?

• If you split, what happens to your kids, your assets, and your property?

• If you pass away, what happens to your kids, your assets, and your property?

• Does your spouse or potential spouse have debt? Can a creditor come after you for your spouse's debts? What can you do about it?

• What if you have children from a prior relationship? How can you protect them?

• Will you co-parent children? What legal relationship will you have with the children? Are you committing through your actions to child support?

• What if you inherit during your marriage? Is that inheritance shared between you?

If you care enough to enter into the very solemn act of marriage, treat it with the respect it deserves, and exercise caution. Too many couples jump into marriage without a full sense of the consequences or acknowledgment that a legal marriage is a contract entered into with your state to be governed by the laws and regulations concerning domestic relations, even if some of those laws did not exist at the time of the marriage! One consequence of not fully thinking through the consequences of marriage is shown in the story of Brittney Griner. As you may know if you stood on line at the supermarket near the tabloid rack, Griner is a star basketball player in the WNBA. Her amazing athletic career has been sullied by the circumstances of her brief marriage to another WNBA basketball player, Glory Johnson. Domestic violence charges preceded the marriage, and resulted in both being suspended from play for a record seven games. Just as many different-sex couples have, despite the warning signs, Griner and Johnson married in May 2015. A month later, Johnson announced that she was pregnant. The following day, Griner filed for an annulment; Johnson has requested $20,000 per month child support for the unborn child. It is unclear how the Griner-Johnson union will be dissolved, or whether Griner will be deemed a parent, but it is clear that marriage is not something to enter impulsively or without a full appreciation of the stakes involved and the consequences if the relationship does not work out. This caution applies to all couples, whether same-sex or not.

Everything always seems rosy when a couple is headed to the altar. People cannot imagine anything bad happening, especially divorce. But all couples considering marriage, gay and straight, need to consider what happens if the relationship ends. Even if you are already married, educate yourself about its consequences. It is never too late for loving couples to have a conversation about their future, nor is it ever too late to consult an attorney about how the marriage would be treated at death or divorce.

Misinformation can be even more dangerous than no information. Recently I consulted with a lovely guy; let's call him Troy. Troy married Charles, his partner of ten years. Troy assumed that after a decade together nothing could ever go wrong between them; they entered legal matrimony without the advice of a family lawyer. Troy is several years older than Charles and closer to retirement. Troy's friends — including his sister, a real estate lawyer, and a buddy who is a criminal defense attorney — all told him that he did not have to worry about his individual retirement account (IRA) because he started it before the marriage: his friends said it would remain Troy's property, no matter what. Troy and his friends assumed that the IRA would always be a nonmarital asset. While Troy could name Charles as a beneficiary at death, they assured him that all of the funds would remain Troy's separate property in the event of divorce. As he inched closer to retirement age, Troy began maxing out his IRA contributions, well aware that if he died, Charles could roll that IRA into his own retirement account. In case of Troy's death, Charles could also stretch out the payments if he did not need all the money, so that those funds would not put him into a higher tax bracket. Troy never imagined an end to their relationship that was not his own death. Then, seven years into the marriage, the relationship began to unravel. Charles filed for divorce. Charles's savvy lawyer asserted Charles's right to the appreciation in value of the retirement account over the term of the marriage, as the contributions made from Troy's income are considered marital income — even if the IRA was in Troy's name alone. The increase in the IRA due to marital contributions and the market appreciation on those contributions over their seven-year marriage was $90,000. Troy was shocked when I told him that indeed, according to the laws of the state of Florida, he needed to pay $45,000 to his soon-to-be-ex. He wished that he had sought accurate advice before he tied the knot. I wish he had too. I could have helped to protect him from this costly mistake or he could have knowingly made the decision to have his spouse share in the marital portion of the account, even if their relationship was terminated by divorce.

Before I Do is for all married people and for those thinking about formalizing a union. Many same-sex couples have obtained real estate and mortgages together, commingled bank accounts, and established joint credit cards. Some people who suffered in previous relationships believe they learned the hard way how to protect themselves and their assets. Others believe they are doing a good job in their household accounting. Everyone needs to understand that legal marriage adds new rights and responsibilities. What rights and obligations does marriage confer and what rights and obligations does it not provide? This book will help you to answer that question.

For younger gay and lesbian people who are beginning to accumulate assets and just starting their first serious relationship, Before I Do shines a light on the basic issues of marriage and outlines the steps necessary to ensure both parties are protected to the full extent of the law.

The consequences of marriage are the same for everyone. All couples considering marriage, gay or straight, should be deliberate. For gay and lesbian people, marriage is a new social and legal benefit; it has not been a part of our community's consciousness or history. We have only had the freedom to marry for a short time. Until now gays and lesbians have largely not entered into relationships with an eye toward "until death do us part," not because we are unwilling or unable to commit but largely because the law has not recognized the potential of our relationships. It was difficult to treat our relationships seriously when the laws of our nation did not. Many of us knew we were gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender from a young age and therefore never imagined we would ever enter into a marriage as traditional as those we saw in our families or in popular culture. Some of us objected to marriage from a feminist perspective; others simply never conceived of marriage as a realistic option because of the unconventional ways in which they structured relationships. A good proportion of LGBT people unequivocally said they never thought they would live to see marriage as an option for us anywhere, much less throughout the United States.

The ins and outs of marriage are foreign to many of us. As a community, we are not prepared by generations of conversation about how to make our relationships last with others of the same gender. We cannot be expected to know automatically what happens if marriage does not work. LGBT people have not lived in a world with premarital guidance for LGBT couples. We have suffered systematic exclusion from many of our communities of faith, a space where traditionally some version of marital preparation happens. We have not been a part of locker room conversations that include cautions about prenuptial agreements and the distribution of marital assets. Once the freedom to marry became law, many same-sex couples faced the supposition that we would marry pronto; if we did not, we faced questions about our commitment. Many assumed that the sole reason we were not married was because legally we could not be; once the law changed, these same people thought that certainly we all would race to the altar.

Pent-up demand for equality leads some to act impetuously. We all know at least one couple, swept up in the moment at a gay pride event, who got hitched. Through my law practice, my public speaking, and colleagues who practice LGBT family law around the country, I have become aware of quite a number of such couples. News flash: those festive cocktail-soaked nuptials are real marriages, too, folks, with all of the consequences of marriage. (Check out Debra Guston's pitch-perfect "Why I Got Married" in Chapter 8.)

Others have wisely taken a different, more deliberate approach, and some choose not to approach the altar at all. For couples not on the same page about marriage, the exciting developments from the U.S. Supreme Court have been a source of tension in their relationships.

For some couples, marriage imbued their relationships with seriousness and stability. Many couples report that after marrying they feel safe enough to take new risks — quitting a job to take care of children, starting a new entrepreneurial venture, or taking some other life risk.

While I hope lots of straight couples will read this book — the information in it broadly applies to any two people considering marriage — the relative novelty of marriage for same-sex couples makes us the primary focus. All couples need to understand not only what getting married means, but also what being married means. The initial glow of romance, the excitement of planning a wedding and being a bride or groom, can blind us to the long-term implications of a marriage, even a successful one.

I am not trying to discourage anyone from legally formalizing commitments. I fought long and hard with thousands of other advocates for our freedom to marry. Social science research suggests that marriage has positive effects on our physical and mental health, especially as we age. A strong marriage can be the cornerstone of a healthy, successful family. I am part of a blended family, a Brady Bunch of my own that includes biological and adopted children. When my parents married, each of them brought children from prior marriages. My father had three biological children and adopted the two little boys who had been adopted by my mother and her ex-husband. Then, together, they had me, the youngest of six. They remained very happily married for more than forty-five years, until my beloved father passed away. We had our share of the usual blended-family problems, but I watched how the bond of my parents' marriage kept my creatively assembled family united and thriving.

I am grateful that my partner and I were able to affirm our commitment through legal marriage. After eleven years together, we knew we were in it to win it. After talking to our accountant and getting her blessing (so romantic!), my partner and I reviewed the various benefits that would be available to us only if we were married, and we balanced those against the potential risks. During our deliberations, my father and my soon-to-be spouse's mother were suffering prolonged illnesses. We wanted them to know while they were alive that we were married, especially given that they both particularly prized marriage as a signifier of stability and safety. We married in Vermont in 2013, three weeks after the Windsor decision, the U.S. Supreme Court case that repealed the core of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and made meaningful federal benefits available even for couples living in nonrecognition states (which included Florida until January 2015).

What was most interesting to us was not that we felt different as a married couple — we did — but that marriage brought a sense of commitment and permanence to our lives. A friend well described his marriage to his partner of fifteen years as feeling like "a back door had closed." It was also fascinating to note how other people regarded us differently. One of my nephews, who has known my wife and me for roughly the same amount of time, said upon our marriage that he now has another "aunt." Funny, I thought she was his aunt anyway. To him, the government sanctioning of our relationship made it official now. One of my brothers, who is the closest to my wife and the most supportive of our relationship since day one, said upon our marriage that now she had a "vote" in the family. Of course, for many years when something of any import was percolating, my mother would call our home and ask for my partner to be put on the phone rather than me because it seems that the two of them instinctively have the same point of view. I think my partner had long had a vote in the family. Still, for my straight family members, our relationship was now in a category they could understand. They speak a language whose definitional boundaries I never quite appreciated until I was initiated as a member of the exclusive marital club.

My partner and I resisted the traditional aspects of matrimony. We were ambivalent about the whole concept of marriage itself. It was not anything that either of us imagined as little girls. My other half, who came out at age six, never ever thought she would be able to marry and so never harbored any wedding-day bridal fantasies. We both felt just a little like we were "selling out" our community of legal outsiders by joining something so very traditional. I was ambivalent about marrying outside of my home state of Florida while I was still waging the legal battle within Florida for the right to marry. It took us a while to be comfortable using the word "wife." To us, more than the word "husband," "wife" seems loaded. It conjured decidedly antifeminist notions of ironing clothes and cooking dinner not for oneself but for the other. "Wife" almost always comes with the pronoun "my" before it and the possessive connotations that arise from centuries of coverture, the system by which a wife's identity and property were subsumed by her husband, stripping her of all independence. Slowly, though, we have come to the conclusion that there is something deliciously subversive about using that title, especially as people scratch their heads for a moment when they hear a woman referring to her wife. I remember my well-meaning father asking us after our marriage, "Which one is the wife?" "We both are, Daddy," I answered.

Embracing the term "wife" solves the problem of what to call one another. "Girlfriend" has been co-opted by straight women to refer to their female friends; "lover" is too graphic and makes me want to pronounce it with a slightly raised eyebrow and French accent; "partner" is confusing for a lawyer or anyone in business; "significant other" hardly rolls off the tongue; and "spouse" seems a bit formal. Having a definitive word choice also helps our allies and friends who stumble over what to call us. "Spouse" and "spouses" (or, as I call them, "spice" — after all, since two mouses are "mice," two spouses must be "spice") are the terms I use throughout this book. When inquiring minds ask what term to use when a couple is married, "spouse" is the one I find myself suggesting, even though it feels rather uptight. The flip side of these word games is that many expect that all same-sex couples are in fact married and prefer terms that reference their connubial status. Do not assume. Language is charged; do not be afraid to ask someone what terms she or he prefers that you use.


Excerpted from "Before I Do"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Elizabeth F. Schwartz.
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 From Outlaws to In-laws 1

2 A Forty-Five-Year-Long, Painstaking Battle (Condensed to Eight Pages) 13

3 Starting Out 21 Cameo: The Unexpected Benefits of Marriage Carol Buell 26

4 What Marriage Means 35

Cameo: I Do, Mr. Taxman: How Marital Status Can Impact Your Taxes Karen Stogdill 40

Cameo: Governmental Benefits and Marriage Jane A. Bassett 59

Cameo: "More Secure and Freer" William Singer 69

Cameo: Military Benefits Bridget J. Wilson 72

Cameo: The Marital Presumption Deborah Wald 81

5 Do You "I Do'7 or Don't You? Ill

Cameo: Working Through the Pain of Discrimination Carol Buell 116

Cameo: Why the Law Shouldn't Value Marriage More Than Other Relationships … and Why I Chose It Anyway Nancy D. Polikoff 118

6 Alternatives to Marriage 123

7 Transgender and Marrying 127

8 Solving Problems 129

Cameo: Self-Understanding Michael Acton-Coles 131

Cameo: Why 1 Got Married Debra Guston 136

9 Estate Planning 139

10 Nuptial Agreements 151

11 Organizing Your Finances 163

Cameo: There's No Fair There David Boyer 166

Cameo: The Only Thing I Can Control Is the Laundry Helen Smolinski 168

12 Divorce 173

Cameo: Determining Status Deborah Wald 180

Cameo: Are We Not the Marrying Kind? Frederick Hertz 183

Cameo: Collaborative Law Mariette Geldenhuys 187

13 Assembling a Team 191

Cameo: The Shifting Landscape of Financial Planning for LGBT Clients After Marriage Equality Nan P. Bailey 194

14 Happily Ever After 197

Afterword: How Will Your Love Live On? Jim Obergefell 199

Acknowledgments 203

Appendix: Selected Resources 207

Index 211

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