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California Courts Continue to Deal with Same-Sex Estate Planning Issues

Although same-sex marriage has been legal in California since 2013, there remain a number of unresolved estate planning issues with respect to the rights of spouses in such relationships. For example, there are cases where the courts must still determine when a same-sex couple was legally married for purposes of determining entitlement to certain retirement benefits. A recent decision by a federal judge in Oakland illustrates how courts are dealing with such questions.

Widow May Pursue Pension Claim Against Spouse’s Employer

This case centers on the pension plan of a woman who passed away on June 20, 2013. This date is important because six days later the U.S. Supreme Court issued two decisions: The first held that the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law restricting the definition of marriage to opposite-sex couples, was unconstitutional; the second decision overturned an initiative previously approved by California voters which similarly banned same-sex marriage.

The decedent in this case lived with a same-sex partner for over 25 years. Although they had been registered as domestic partners under California law since 2001, they were unable to marry due to the federal and state bans. When the decedent learned at the beginning of June 2013 that she was dying from terminal cancer, she wanted to ensure her partner received surviving spouse’s benefits under her employer’s pension plan. The employer, citing DOMA and federal laws governing pension benefits, said only a “spouse” in an opposite-sex relationship could qualify for such benefits.

The decedent and her partner decided to marry in a civil ceremony on June 19, 2013, the day before her death. Although a county official presided over the ceremony, no marriage license could be issued since the California ban was still in effect. The ban was not lifted until June 26, 2013.

The employer declined to pay the surviving spouse’s benefits, arguing the decedent was not legally married on the day of her death. The surviving spouse sued the employer in federal court. On January 4, 2016, a judge issued a ruling dismissing some of the spouse’s arguments but allowing one to proceed.

The surviving argument centers on whether federal pension law mandates payment of the spousal benefit regardless of the language contained in the retirement plan itself. In brief, the spouse here claims the Supreme Court’s June 2013 decisions should be applied retroactively to hold her marriage “was valid as of the time of” the decedent’s death. The judge said he was not prepared to reject this retroactivity argument at this time. While the judge also did not rule in the spouse’s favor at this time, she noted judges in other states had accepted similar arguments with respect to pension plans and same-sex couples married before the Supreme Court’s decision.

Get Advice from an Estate Planning Attorney

Even if you are not in a same-sex relationship it is always a good idea to review your retirement and pension plans as part of your overall estate planning. You (and your spouse) should understand the terms and conditions of any such plans before a legal complication arises. An experienced California estate planning attorney can help you with such matters. Contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady in San Diego if you would like to speak with someone today.

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