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Home is where the protection is: in the absence of a marriage license, the title of a home is a state-recognized document that links you and your partners names in print. But don't rely on that alone to protect your relationship.

Susan Abbott and her partner of 11 years, Lynn Heald, have found many different ways to legally protect their relationship, including registering as domestic partners in the city of Oak Park, Ill., where they live. They both have powers of attorney for health care and finances, and wills as proof of their wishes. And Heald completed a second-parent adoption of the two sons to whom Abbott gave birth.

"The coparent adoption is one of the most binding things we've done," says Abbott, program director for the Oak Park Area Lesbian and Gay Association. "It's saying very consciously that this is my child's parent."

What's the next most binding thing? Some legal experts say it's the three-bedroom home they purchased together in the Chicago suburb.

Documents that might seem mundane to opposite-sex couples can act as invaluable protections for same-sex couples forbidden to marry. Among them, real estate titles are a rare state-recognized document that links the couple's names in print.

"It's still the only way legally that some people can recognize their relationships," says Mark Nash, author of 1001 Tips for Buying & Selling a Home and an out real estate broker in Evanston, Ill., another Chicago suburb. "Because marriage isn't possible, sometimes housewarmings are veiled wedding receptions."

However, same-sex couples should educate themselves before simply adding each other to house titles, says Sharon Thompson, president of North Carolina Gay and Lesbian Attorneys, because it can trigger gift taxes or unintended ownership rights if the couple splits up. "If they feel magnanimous and put everything in joint names, they may not know about all the other issues," she says.

Also, same-sex couples who own a home together and don't generate the proper paperwork could leave their surviving partner at the mercy of the courts should one of them die. Take Regina Pavone and Andrea Hall. They exchanged vows in a private ceremony, had joint bank accounts, and bought a home in Chicago. But after Hall died in 1996 without a will, an Illinois court ruled that the women weren't married, so Pavone couldn't inherit Hall's estate.

While home ownership does afford a kind of de facto legal recognition for same-sex couples living outside of the handful of states that offer formal recognition, the case of Pavone and Hall demonstrates that it shouldn't be seen as sufficient protection. Gays and lesbians everywhere should be seeking out legal help with powers of attorney, wills, and other legal papers that recognize their relationships and help protect their rights and wishes. But don't just go with the first attorney you meet, warns Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Your lawyer should have worked with other same-sex couples and be up-to-date on laws affecting gay rights. "Don't just pick an attorney out of the yellow pages," Minter says. "If you have an attorney who is very competent in general but does not have specific knowledge about laws affecting LGBT people, you're putting yourself at risk."

Health care proxies give your partner the legal power to make medical decisions for you if you're unable to communicate. In some states, without such an authorization, courts may give that responsibility to the closest blood relative. And be sure to make several copies available, advises Hayley Gorenberg, deputy legal director at Lambda Legal. "Sometimes people have validly executed proxies," says Gorenberg, "but they're not in the right place when the time comes."

Like health care proxies, a power of attorney can give partners control over each other's finances if one is incapacitated. Partnership agreements spell out who gets what if the relationship ends, a prospect many couples don't like to consider but something that can get messy without such a contract. And wills let your partner inherit your property when you die.

Barb Ettleson and Pat Brockett, partners of 25 years who live in northeast Iowa, have done everything possible to make sure the law recognizes their relationship: They have wills and medical and financial powers of attorney and have set up their house title, cars, investments, and joint bank account with a right of survivorship so that whoever lives longest won't have to worry about losing the assets of their relationship when the other dies.

"We don't do anything until after we go into the institution and say, "We're a lesbian couple,'" says Ettleson, who lives in Decorah, a college town of about 8,000. "If they say, 'Oh, shit, I have no idea what to do,' we don't work with them."

Laws vary so much from one state to another that it also is key to understand what works--and what doesn't--where you live. Arizona, for example, requires a separate power of attorney for mental health in addition to a health care power of attorney, says Kathie Gummere, a lawyer whose practice includes legal matters pertaining to same-sex couples. In Illinois, courts typically don't honor legal documents that spell out an agreement between two unmarried individuals, says Richard Wilson, a Chicago domestic-relations attorney whose practice includes working with LGBT couples. Wilson suggests making the contracts anyway so you've made your intentions clear. "You acknowledge that, based upon advice of counsel, this is the law now and we don't know where we'll be if and when we break up, and the law may change," Wilson says.

Abbott and Heald say they aren't leaving anything to chance. Their powers of attorney, for example, help "just in case something would happen to me and a family member stepped in and said Lynn didn't have the right to make decisions, or vice versa," says Abbott, who has sent copies of the documents to other relatives. "I don't anticipate anyone would do that, but just to be safe."

Henneman also has written for the San Francisco Chronicle and Workforce Management magazine.
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Author:Henneman, Todd
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 28, 2006
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