Lesbian Notions – Do the Paperwork
May 27, 2006
The man who sat across from me was good-looking and in his mid-30s - a corporate type who was crying as he ate his bagel. Almost six months after losing his 41-year-old partner, Rich Janulis, to a bad heart, Jim Salengo’s pain is palpable. I couldn’t keep from welling up myself.
They had been together for 13 years. They owned a house together. Rich, who worked at the New York State AIDS Institute, listed Jim as his domestic partner so that the latter could get health insurance from the state while between jobs. They had built a life that was full of friends, family, and fabulous times together.
They had even taken the steps necessary to protect each other in the event one of them would die. They took the steps but never completed the journey. The day Rich died, none of the paperwork - the wills, the powers of attorney, the medical proxies - had been signed. In the eyes of the law, Jim didn’t exist as Rich’s partner.
Through Jim’s tears came the anger he has felt for the past six months. He’s not angry with Rich for dying; he’s angry because, despite 13 years together, their relationship wasn’t valued by anyone or anything “official.”
Because Rich died at home, the police had to be called. “They asked me if I was his roommate,” Jim told me. “I told them, ‘No, we’re partners.’ When I read the police report, it said roommate.” Jim’s tears flowed.
Then it was time to determine who was Rich’s next of kin - because the legal paperwork had never been completed, the designation went to Rich’s mother, who told Jim not to worry, she would make sure he got what he deserved. If Mom thought Jim deserved heartache, pain, guilt, confusion, and frustration, well, she made good on her word. Instead of recognizing Jim’s status, she and her other son - who, by the way, is a gay man - put up roadblocks to Jim receiving Rich’s back pay and unpaid vacation. She also just left him twisting in the wind emotionally.
Thankfully, one of Rich’s sisters, Jackie, has been clearheaded throughout this ordeal, and has been an advocate for Jim. She took it upon herself to find out who in the State Comptroller’s office - which would be distributing what the state owed Rich - would be a sympathetic ear.
As resourceful as a woman on a mission can be, Jackie worked the system, and those funds went to the estate and not to the mother. Since Jackie was appointed by the court as the estate’s co-executor, there’s some hope Jim will get what he really deserves - the same benefits and respect that a heterosexual survivor would have gotten in a similar scenario.
Much more complex and internecine than there’s space for in this column, the story comes back to Jim, who continues to wipe his eyes in between bites. He tells me of their best friends from Massachusetts - two gay men who were planning a big wedding with Rich and Jim as their best men. They called it off. It just wouldn’t be the wedding they had hoped for without both Rich and Jim to share in the special day.
He looked at me and asked why. Why has it been so difficult for him to be seen as Rich’s legal partner? Why have he and Jackie had to jump through hoops? Why aren’t our relationships valued?
We all know the answers to those questions, and so did he. He wanted to know what he could do with his anger. I told him he could be a poster child for the same-sex marriage fight. “Maybe it’s time to get involved,” he said.
Jim’s story is the story of so many in the lesbian and gay community. Together for years, we never take the time to put our affairs in order. We think “nothing is going to happen,” and we figure we can take care of it next month, after we get back from vacation, after Christmas, when we find a supportive attorney, when we have the time.
Well, I say, there’s no time like the present. If you love each other and are in it for the long haul, do yourself a favor - get the paperwork done. As the community continues to grow and we get older, having all the legal and estate-planning work complete is essential if we are going to protect each other. If you own a home together, make sure both of your names are on the deed. Luckily for Jim, both his and Rich’s names were. Otherwise, he could have lost the house.
Sit down with your partner and have the discussion - who gets what in the event either of you die. Make sure partners are listed as beneficiaries on pensions and life insurance policies. Do the research needed in your state to make sure arrangements are iron-clad.
I know Jim wishes they had.