Plan Your Life
Why lesbians need to get informed and take control of their lives
Posted Friday, October 14, 2011, 12:10PM
Confusing. Uncomfortable. Scary. These are words that may come to mind when you start to consider long-term life planning. Writing a will, assigning a power of attorney, even creating a partnership agreement—making these decisions and putting them into action can be daunting for anyone. But taking these steps to protect ourselves and our loved ones is especially important for LGBT folks because we do not have the same kinds of protections and rights as our hetero counterparts. Mary Blanchett—who founded her company with the express purpose of empowering LGBT adults to plan around punitive laws—explains why, when it comes to getting serious about life planning, there’s no time like the present.
Are lesbians aware of how they may be discriminated against?
Our community is not protected, and many of us don’t realize there’s a need and a way to protect ourselves. Even though some national LGBT organizations have some type of education on building your own safety net, many people don’t take the time to learn how we are vulnerable and act to reverse it. I tell people to read Lambda Legal’s Take the Power: Tools for Life and Financial Planning and the NCLR’s Lifelines: Documents to Protect You and Your Family and Planning with Purpose: Legal Basics for LGBT Elders.
What are the more punitive laws against LGBT people in the United States?
The mother lode of discriminatory laws is DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act], which does not allow same-sex couples to be recognized, even when they are legally married in their own state. Because of DOMA, federal benefit agencies cannot recognize your same-sex partner or spouse.
Same-sex partners and spouses are excluded from COBRA [Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act]—which maintains a spouse’s and family’s health insurance after the insured spouse loses her job—and from Social Security’s spousal and survivor benefits. You cannot cover your ineligible spouse for Medicare, or transfer wealth to your spouse without incurring estate tax. You cannot visit your spouse in a hospital or nursing home. You cannot take Family and Medical Leave Act [FMLA] time off to care for your spouse, or make medical decisions for her, or access tax-free employer-paid medical insurance for her. You are not entitled to income tax benefits for couples. Your foreign-born spouse is not entitled to U.S. citizenship. You cannot adopt your spouse’s child. You cannot take spousal bereavement leave, and do not have the right to bury your spouse. All this is separate and not equal treatment.
Even with the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell—which will allow lesbians and gay men to be out in the military—LGBT service members will not be eligible for any of the spousal benefits that different-sex married couples have. That’s because DOMA is still in effect.
What life planning can lesbians, and especially couples, do to protect themselves, their assets and their families?
A partnership agreement can be drawn up by an LGBT-knowledgeable attorney. It’s good planning, regardless of how long you’ve known your partner before you move in together. This can outline each partner’s responsibility to the home, to each other, to children and to debt; it can state the ownership of assets, pets and property; and it can specify what obligation each person has if the relationship ends.
I have heard many sad stories of breakups. Everything from ex-partners who lost cherished family heirlooms and pets, to those who discovered major credit card debt in their name. We should do anything we can to diminish potential hardship for ourselves.
What are the most common mistakes lesbians make by not planning their lives?
The two biggest mistakes are in wills and medical decision-making authority. Many lesbians think they don’t have enough assets to require a will. They don’t realize that each state has intestate laws to decide who gets your goods when you’re gone—which means that those close friends who are more like family than your real family don’t get anything. And those charities you’ve been donating time and money to are left out as well.
Designating medical decision-making authority, either through a health-care proxy or through a power of attorney for health-care decisions, is often seen as unnecessary. But people really do get into accidents and are sometimes unable to speak for themselves in the emergency room. That’s the most important time to have someone speaking on your behalf, to have your wishes expressed and followed.
Lesbians with aging parents face a difficult time looking after themselves, their parents and often their own children. How can you help them manage this part of their lives better?
First, I encourage women to take good care of themselves. Empower yourself through learning as much as possible about your own changing health conditions, including menopause and midlife crisis. Talk to your doctors about it and share it with other women. Be out with your doctors, because lesbians have some health issues that differ from those of other women.
Second, I encourage everyone to learn about long-term care options and who pays for it. If a health crisis for your aging parent occurs, you will be able to make better choices if you are informed and have some plans in place. I’ve told people to read the AARP’s planning guide, Prepare to Care, on how to start the conversation with your aging loved one and ways to reduce the financial stress on the family.
Third, I encourage lesbians to learn how aging and long-term care can be different for us. We know LGBT adults are not afforded the same rights as others, so find out where the disparities are and work with organizations to push your elected officials to end the discrimination.
MetLife’s Still Out, Still Aging, a study published in 2010, found that compared to the general population LGBT adults are almost twice as likely to live with a parent; That more than three times as many LGBT adults expect to provide care for a friend; and that almost twice as many LGBT adults live alone. In addition, 64 percent of LGBT adults have a “chosen family” who they rely on for support.
The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force stated in Outing Age 2010 that ageism in the community adds to the burdens faced by older LGBT adults, leaving many of our elders isolated from the larger LGBT community. Ageism is something we each have the authority to change.
We all hope to live long and productive lives. Get information on how current laws may affect LGBT adults. Mary Blanchett & Associates, Inc. (gaylifeplanning.com) provides the guidance and education that you need to make the best decisions for your future.
Case Study in Life Planning: Jackie, 42
Jackie lives alone in New York, N.Y. She has family out of state, a close relationship with her mother and sister, a few close friends nearby and is currently dating a 38-year-old woman with a child.
- She has no will, power of attorney, or health care proxy, and has not completed a hospital visitation form.
- She has no information about how to care for her aging mother.
- She is not out to her primary care physician or her gynecologist.
- She has a small life insurance policy through work.
- She has HMO medical insurance through work and a Flexible Spending Account (FSA) for tax-free reimbursement on medical expenses.
- She has an IRA and 100 shares of bank stock from her deceased father plus a 401K with matching funds from her employer for retirement savings.
- Jackie understands the benefits of having a will, the implications of New York State’s intestate rules and the consequences of having a power of attorney. Jackie is educated about the 1991 Federal Patient’s Self-Determination Act, the new NYS Family Medical Decisions Act and the new Health and Human Services regulation protecting LGBT couples’ visitation rights. Jackie receives referrals to LGBT-knowledgeable lawyers and decides to complete the health care proxy and hospital visitation form.
-Jackie has learned about N.Y.C.’s inclusion in the World Health Organization’s Age Friendly City initiatives and Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities, understands her long-term care options, which include having a case manager for her mother, and knows the difference between Medicare and Medicaid coverage. Jackie is working with her sister and an attorney in her home state to complete documents about the future care of her mother. She is relieved to find out that her mother has long-term care insurance, which will pay the cost of any home care needs.
- She has discussed the reasons why she should fully disclose her medical history to her doctor, including her sexual orientation and activity, and she knows about the specific health conditions that affect lesbians. Jackie is changing her gynecologist and plans to come out to her primary doctor.
- She has received information on term, whole and universal life insurance and the applications for that money. Final expenses and pre-need decisions have been discussed. Disability and LTC insurance has been reviewed. Jackie has received referrals to LGBT-knowledgeable insurance brokers. She goes to Human Resources at work and discovers that her life insurance policy is for six months’ salary and that she still has her father as the primary beneficiary. She plans on getting renter’s insurance to protect her belongings.
- COBRA and health care reform law have been reviewed. Jackie is encouraged to maintain good records of her expenses and reimbursements, in case she’s ever audited.
- IRAs, mutual funds and retirement income have been discussed. Asset ownership options have been reviewed. Jackie understands the importance of reviewing beneficiaries. She has been offered referrals to financial planners and lawyers. She reviews everything she owns and is surprised at how much she has. She completes a form listing all her important contact information and policy numbers, and engages a lawyer to write her will and complete a POA.
- Jackie feels less overwhelmed and more protected. She is able to focus on her relationship with her girlfriend and is happy to share her knowledge with friends and family.
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