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The legal status of gay couples in Wisconsin in a 'state of chaos'

When a marriage amendment passed in Wisconsin on November 7 (59% voted for it), gay and lesbian couples were surprised that so many of their fellow citizens would not only deny them marriage equality — and ban civil unions or any legal agreements that approximate the rights that convey with civil marriage.

Couples are now scrambling to obtain legal protections that may in fact, be challenged.  The Wisconsin State Journal interviewed a couple from Madison, Jackie Hind and Kelli Neal, who have two children together and are surveying the legal landscape before them — they have no legal documents acknowledging their relationship.

They’d been living in a cocoon in Madison, surrounded by supportive neighbors and co-workers, they concluded. The vote was a rude slap – 59 percent of Wisconsin residents approved a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, civil unions and anything with a legal status “substantially similar” to marriage.

“The vote just made us realize that so many people around the state are not supportive of us,” said Hind, a speech pathologist at UW-Madison. “It lit a fire under us to get our financial and legal guardianship issues in order as soon as possible.”

There’s a lot of paperwork ahead of them…

* Hind and Neal don’t have a power of attorney for finances or a co-habitation agreement;
* Hind has filled out a power-of-attorney form that includes a HIPAA clause through her employer; Neal intends to do so soon,
* Neither has an estate plan, saying “The hectic life of raising two children has kept us from getting around to it.
* Hind adopted the couple’s children, Alexander, 6, and Elena, 4. Only one person could be named on the adoption papers (the kids are from Guatemala), which means Neal has no legal relationship to the children if something were to happen to Hind.

It’s unfortunate, to put it mildly, that these two educated women didn’t deal with some of these issues when adopting their two children; I guess it’s better late than never.

Or is it? An irony mentioned in the article by Leslie Shear, director of the Family Law Project at the Frank J. Remington Center at UW- Madison Law School, in light of the amendment’s passage:

As you put together these various legal documents, you’re starting to create a status that is substantially similar to marriage,” Shear said. “To me, it’s somewhat ironic that the more you’d do to protect your family, the more open to a challenge you might be.”

Attorneys stress that the legal documents available to same-sex couples are just as applicable to any unmarried couple. And some of the items, such as an estate plan, are fundamental for everyone but particularly crucial for unmarried couples.

In many cases, the documents and forms can be completed without the cost of an attorney. However, “the reality is that you rely on these documents most likely in a crisis when things are called into question, so the best approach is to use a lawyer,” said Jennifer Chrisler, executive director of Family Pride, a national organization that advocates for full family equality.

***

Meanwhile, some gays and lesbians aren’t waiting to find out what legal morass lies ahead in Wisconsin; faculty and staff at the University of WI-Madison are simply packing up and leaving. (Madison.com):

Gay and lesbian faculty and staff members told UW-Madison leaders Wednesday that they were considering leaving the university over the state’s passage of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions.

…”I think that a lot of people are looking elsewhere,” said Concha Gomez, an academic staff member in the mathematics department. “Those of us who are over 40 and thinking about retirement don’t have time for this to change.”

More than 100 students, faculty and staff attended the listening session with UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley. Wiley told the crowd he was disappointed the amendment passed, and it would make the Legislature less likely to add health insurance benefits for partners.

The lack of those benefits, he said, puts the university at a major competitive disadvantage in recruiting and retaining talented employees.

Dennis Miller, an employee in the art department, told Wiley his partner resigned his job in the admissions office Tuesday over the issue.

Gomez and her partner started job hunting in other states the day after the amendment passed. Even with a supportive administration, if a court orders the University of Wisconsin System to deny partner benefits currently offered by the university (such as life insurance and eye and dental care) Chancellor Wiley will be forced to kill them — and he will be helpless as he watches the gay exodus.

I love this quote from a fundie student who voted for the amendment and was peeved that Wiley and campus admin expressed any university support for its gay faculty and staff.

In an e-mail sent to students last week, interim Dean of Students Lori Berquam called the amendment’s passage with 59 percent of the vote a “strike against equality” that will eventually be seen as a “shameful aberration” of the state’s progressive tradition.

UW-Madison junior Adam Schmidt, who voted for the amendment, said such language from the university’s administrative headquarters means his opinion is not welcomed on campus.

While my ballot was cast not in the name of hate, intolerance or homophobia — rather in the spirit of caution and moderation — my position and my beliefs have come under attack from high atop Bascom Hill,” he wrote in a letter in the Wisconsin State Journal.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding

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