GLAA Testifies on Domestic Partnership enhancement bill
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GLAA Testifies on Domestic Partnership
enhancement bill

Fighting for Equal Rights Since 1971
P. O. Box 75265
Washington, D.C. 20013

TESTIMONY ON Bill 16-52,

Submitted to the Committee on the Judiciary
May 12, 2005

Chairman Mendelson and committee members:

Good afternoon, I am Bob Summersgill, the treasurer of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, D.C. (GLAA)

On behalf GLAA, I would like to thank you, Chairman Mendelson, for introducing this bill and all of the co-sponsors-Councilmembers Ambrose, Barry, Brown, Catania, Cropp, Evans, Graham, Gray, and Schwartz. GLAA has been informed that every councilmember supports the bill, and we anticipate that the bill will pass quickly.

Bill 16-52 is an expansion of the rights and responsibilities of domestic partners in Washington, D.C. The bill is a moderate measure granting legal contracting and inheritance rights to domestic partners, but leaving such partners far from the level of rights and responsibilities of marriage.

This legislation will allow registered domestic partners to protect themselves and their families, especially in times of crisis. Many of these rights and responsibilities can be set up with elaborate contracts that can cost thousands of dollars. Others cannot otherwise be established except though marriage. The bill also establishes the associated responsibilities and obligations for the relationship.

The costs of creating a legal personal relationship are quite high. One couple told us that they spent $2,500 to establish the basic legal framework for their relationship. One of the partners looked wistfully at me as he pondered the idea of doing the same thing for only the $45 domestic partner registration fee. Councilmember David Catania has spoken about the thousands of dollars that he spent for power of attorney and other important documents, all of which need to be updated regularly as the laws change.

What is covered by the bill.

Specifically, the bill grants domestic partners the following rights and responsibilities:

Our laws protect private conversations between spouses, with doctors and with religious figures. This is an important privacy right that does not currently apply to domestic partners. Rosie O'Donnell was sued a couple of years ago and her domestic partner was compelled to testify about their private conversations. This bill will extend immunity from testifying to domestic partners.

Power of attorney is an essential legal device for handling the affairs of someone who is unable to do so for themselves. Domestic partners, already invested in their partner's finances and legal obligations, need to be able to step in when their partner is unable to take care of their own affairs.

Premarital agreements are an important legal structure that helps couples settle their financial affairs in the event of their relationship failing. Domestic partners don't have any basis in the law for determining how to divide their assets. This bill will give domestic partners the legal power to define the financial aspects of their relationship.

For married couple who divorce, alimony is a significant issue. It has been critically needed by a spouse who has left the workforce to care for children and other reasons. Alimony has allowed them to keep from being dropped into poverty at the termination of the marriage. Domestic partners need the same rules for support as do married couples. Premarital agreements can define how much, if any, support should be forthcoming if the relationship ends.

Currently, only immediate family and spouses have standing to sue when a loved one is killed due to negligence. This legislation will give domestic partners legal standing, like any other close family member, in such a time of need.

While everyone should have a will to protect their family and heirs when they die, many people do not. This bill will recognize domestic partners and their children as legal heirs should one of them die intestate. Numerous other issues of inheritance and the rights of surviving domestic partners and children are extended to protect the families of domestic partners.

This bill will not have any cost to the D.C. Government. This legislation does not create any new entitlements or obligations for the D.C. Government. It does allow domestic partners to legally order their affairs and establish binding contracts to establish the legal parameters of their relationship; define rights and responsibilities in the event of a break-up; and protect themselves if one should die.

D.C.'s domestic partnership law applies equally to gay and straight couples. However, gay couples have the most to benefit because we are legally barred from marriage. Allowing couples who may not wed the legal structures needed to protect themselves is a matter of basic fairness.

What is not covered by the bill.

Even with the passage of this bill, D.C. will still be significantly behind Massachusetts, Vermont, California, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Maine in protecting all of our families. Under this legislation, the District's domestic partnership law will still fall significantly short of the rights and responsibilities of married couples in the following ways, among others.

The legislation:

Addressing Opposition to the Legislation

We have heard grumbling opposition from some people about this legislation. The complaints seem to fall into three categories:

The bill doesn't go far enough

Most gay and lesbian people will not be satisfied with anything less than full equality. That means nothing less than or different from marriage. GLAA completely agrees with this position. The question for us is, how much can we advance in the current political environment without losing the limited rights and responsibilities that we already have?

We believe that this legislation will take us a few steps in the right direction without incurring the wrath of the Congress. President Bush, shortly before the election, said he supports the right of states wishing to offer non-marriage legal alternatives to gay couples. GLAA takes him at his word.

The bill goes too far

Some people, who are deeply and bitterly opposed to equality and human rights, will make the irrational claim that this bill is the equivalent of marriage. As previously discussed, this bill doesn't begin to come close to marriage. We are confident that one day we will have marriage laws across the country that are non-discriminatory, but that day is not today. We are also confident that those stridently opposed to equal rights for gay and lesbian people will slowly recognize the destructive nature of their words and actions and will atone as we have seen in other movements over time.

There are also some people arguing that until we get full equality, we should not have responsibilities. GLAA believes that the responsibilities in this bill, and in the marriage law in general, are the responsibilities of a committed relationship. The responsibilities in this bill are measured to balance the benefits. GLAA welcomes and expects to see more responsibilities in future legislation, not less.

The bill changes the rules

Some people in our community have suggested that it is inappropriate to change the rules that define domestic partnerships because it is unfair to people who registered under the earlier, and shorter, set of rules. They have further suggested that this legislation have an opt-out option for people who have already registered. This would create a legal nightmare to administer some laws for some domestic partners and a different set of laws for others. We believe that most people who have registered are serious, committed couples who will welcome this expansion of the law. If however, there are registered partners who are unprepared for the legal implications of this legislation, it is still very simple to dissolve a domestic partnership. The Council should not worry about this. Legislation is literally about changing the rules. In fact the laws regarding domestic partners have already been changed several times.

In conclusion, we very much appreciate this legislation and hope that it will be passed quickly.

Thank you. I am available to answer any questions that you may have.