CommunityMy FDL

Marriage, Money & Suze Orman

I’ve never read Suze Orman’s books, and I’ve only seen part of one of her television appearances. I got as far as writing down my “money fears,” as she called them, but no further. Talking finances alternately confuses me, frustrates me, and ? on occasion ? depresses me. But I listened to Orman and watched her enough to get a “vibe” from her; one that made me wonder if she had secrets that weren’t just financial.

Turns out, my “gaydar” doesn’t just work with men. Albeit somewhat reluctantly, Orman came out recently about her seven year relationship with another woman, and some “money fears” of her own.

According to Editor and Publisher, when she was asked by Deborah Solomon if she is married, Orman countered that she has a “relationship with life.” After further pressing, Orman revealed that she is in a seven-year relationship with Kathy Travis, a coproducer on The Suze Orman Show.

She told Solomon that the two would like to get married because they each “have millions of dollars in our name. It’s killing me that upon my death, K.T. is going to lose 50 percent of everything I have to estate taxes. Or vice versa.”

It’s worth noting that this isn’t simply a matter of inheritance and having a will. Let’s just assume that someone who makes her living giving financial advice has, in seven years, drawn up a will that leaves her estate to her partner. Kathy Travis will likely get everything that Orman leaves to her, if Orman predeceases her. She will, however, have to pay taxes on most of what she inherits, because since she and Orman are not and cannot be legal spouses, anything one leaves to the other is considered a “gift”; a gift between people who are legal strangers to each other, and therefore taxable.

If Kathy’s name were Kenneth or Suze’s name was Sam, and assuming they had the genitalia and chromosomes to go with those monikers, they could avoid those taxes for as little as the cost of a ring, a wedding license and 15 minutes with a justice o’ the peace. But sometimes same-sex couples have to resort to drastic measures, like another lesbian couple I read about this morning.

In their 14-year relationship, Patricia Spado and Olive Watson spent only five nights apart. They lived in New York, spent summers in Maine, and shared the more practical pieces of a life together — a home, a joint bank account.

But in a time long before civil unions or gay marriage, Watson wanted to ensure that her partner would be taken care of when she was no longer there. So, at a small courthouse in coastal Maine, she adopted Spado.

Fifteen years later, the adoption is being challenged in courts in Connecticut and Maine as Olive Watson’s family parcels out the family fortune _ and contests their newfound heir.

The case, according to gay activists, is rare and offers an example of how far same-sex couples have gone to attain financial and inheritance protections that married couples take for granted.

‘It shows what people are driven to when they don’t have access to marriage and the conventional way of forming a family,’ said Mary Bonauto, an attorney with Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, the Boston-based group that won the legal battle that introduced gay marriage to Massachusetts.

But wait. It gets better, and also illustrates that (1) queers happen in the best (or at least the wealthiest) of families and (2) the lack of legal options for same-sex couples creates problems that you might not expect further down the line. For example, married couples can get divorced and thus sever legal most legal ties; unless they have children, in which case some legal ties remain. But what happens when a same-sex couple breaks up, after one partner adopts another?

At stake is a share in multimillion-dollar trust funds that Thomas Watson, who built International Business Machines into today’s IBM computer colossus, set up for his grandchildren. He died in 1993, unaware of the adoption. His wife, who died in 2004, apparently learned of it from her daughter.

With the deaths of both parents, the trusts’ beneficiaries _ grandchildren, at least 18 of them _ became eligible for cash payouts at age 35. But when Spado’s lawyer notified the trusts that she was a potential beneficiary as a legal granddaughter, the family challenged the claim in probate court in Greenwich, Conn., where Thomas Watson lived at the time of his death.

Spado and Olive Watson aren’t together anymore. They separated in 1992, and while Spado received about $500,000 from Watson, there is nothing in court records to show any arrangement beyond that.

A judge ruled that Thomas Watson did not recognize Spado as his granddaughter and did not intend for her to benefit from the trusts. ‘It is reasonable to conclude that Watson intended to benefit only those grandchildren who had a typical parent/child relationship with his children,’ Judge David Hopper wrote.

? Spado has appealed. In the meantime, the family trusts are trying to have her adoption annulled in Maine, where they would have to prove deception or fraud.

The funny thing here is that the lack of marriage equality for a lesbian couple has, in this case, created a world of trouble for the rest of the presumably heterosexual members of the family. Had Spado and Watson been able to marry and divorce, there wouldn’t have been a need to even consider adoption as a means of securing at least some rights and protections. I’m no lawyer, but I’m pretty sure that in a divorce Spado would have lost any claims on Watson’s estate or that some legal agreement to that effect would have been part of the process of a divorce. (Heterosexuals do it all the time, right?)

But, they couldn’t, so there was. So now that family is stuck trying to prove that deception or fraud played a part in the adoption. After a 14 year relationship? Good luck with that. I’m apparently a little late picking up on the story, as it was in the news back in January, but a law school professor suggested it might not be so easy for the family to nullify the adoption.

Even if the adoption was valid, would Spado as an adoptee be entitled to beneficiary status under the Watson trusts; that will turn on a variety of interpretive issues related to the wording of the trust document. Still an interesting case, but the different facts from what I wrote yesterday cast a different light on the story.

And suggest one of the main problems with the use of adoption as a marriage substitute for creating legal family ties for same-sex couples… If the relationship ends, how do you sever the legal tie? Statutes and courts tend to treat adoptions as final and permanent. While an adoption might be voided or nullified on various grounds, I don’t think the facts of this case rest easily within any of the specified grounds. I don’t know enough about the facts to speculate openly about the motives of anybody involved in this, but it is certainly an interesting story.

Interstingly enough, this case has echoes of what Stephanie Coontz describes as one of the historic “purposes of marriage” in Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage.

Throughout most of history a key function of marriage was to produce children and organize inheritance rights. Marriages were often nullified if a couple didn’t produce a child. But in our modern times, no one would suggest that couples who don’t have children should not have access to the legal benefits of marriage.

(Of course, that means the Washington state proposal may be even more supportive of “traditional marriage” than the opponents of marriage equality make themselves out to be, but that’s another post for another time, and one I already have in the works.) Inheritance was also tied to legitimacy, and according to Coontz until the late 1960s most countries granted little to no inheritance rights to unwed mothers and “illegitimate children.”

And perhaps it’s a stretch, but it sounds an awful lot like this case hinges on whether Sapdo can be considered a “legitimate child” of Watson, and thus a “legitimate heir.” Whatever the court decides, it looks like they were a legitimate couple to the extent they could be legally. And when the split up, Watson apparently expressed her intention that the break up would not change the adoption of Spado.

Watson amended her will to name Spado as sole beneficiary, and court documents show that Watson didn’t intend that their breakup would change that.

According to a court brief filed by Spado in Maine, a letter signed by Watson shortly after the breakup confirms ‘our agreement that I have not and that I shall at no time initiate any action to revoke or annul my adoption of you.’

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. It’s also somewhat amusing that the family has to spend money on legal fees to sort this all out because, like I said earlier, it’s usually same-sex couples who end up forking over cash that essentially goes to subsidize heterosexual couples.

It almost makes marriage seem more like ?welfare for heterosexuals? supported by the rest of us; a stipend, if you will, for being ?straight.? That?s the part that doesn?t get talked about.

It?s one that either doesn?t get brought up, maybe because people don?t particularly like talking about money, or opponents of marriage equality dismiss support for marriage equality by saying ?it?s all about money.?

Well, no. And yes. Anybody with a family (and I count couples who don?t have kids as families too) knows that it takes money to keep a family afloat, especially in times of crisis ? like during illness, or in the event of a family members death. Health care, in those cases, takes money. Bereavement leave in the event of a spouses death, or family leave in the event of an illness are about money in as much as they assure that the surviving partner?s job and income will be there to return to. It takes money, sometimes in the form of a partner?s inherited pension and Social Security benefits, to keep a family functioning after the death of a partner; sometimes even to keep a roof over the family?s heads.

And while Spado doesn’t have children to support, as far as I know, there’s the argument that heterosexual spouses need those benefits to support their families in the events of the other spouse’s death. In other words, a widowed mother with children needs all the resources she can get in order to support her family, and perhaps even keep them off the welfare rolls, etc.; thus, not taxing what she inherits of her her husband’s estate helps her keep more of those resources for her family.

However, as in quote from Coontz, “no one would suggest that couples who don’t have children should not have access to the legal benefits of marriage.” Assuming, of course, that the couple in question is heterosexual, those legal benefits include inheritance. No one would suggest taxing the inheritance of a surviving spouse whose marriage did not produce offspring. In other words, no “procreate or pay-up” standard is in the offing anytime soon. The widow in the example above would have no worries in that regard, even if she and her departed husband never had children, so long as she could prove they were legally married.

Part of it goes to just who is considered a family and who is considered a “nonfamily.”

In other words, a ?nonfamily.? In the legal sense, at least, though heterosexual ?nonfamilies? pretty much always have the option to marry receive the benefits and protections afforded based on marital status. In other words, they?re only missing a piece of paper that they could easily obtain if they so choose. (And it will be argued that ?gays can get married, if they just marry a member of the opposite sex?; which essentially means they have to significantly alter the make-up of their families. Something heterosexuals don?t have to do.)

But that brings up the question of what exactly makes a family? Is it legally little more than a marriage certificate? What the article doesn?t mention is what roles the couples labeled ?nonfamily? play in one another?s lives. It?s likely they do the same things that married couples do, from supporting one another financially to taking care of each other through illness, even raising children together and caring for one another in old age; all things that could be included in a conservative case for same-sex marriage.

Are married heterosexual couples who don’t have children, whether it’s because they can’t or because they choose not to, still considered families? For all legal intents and purposes, they are, so long as they’re legally married. It doesn’t matter whether they have no children or fill up a home with their offspring.

And removing reproduction from the equation, assuming we’re not rewarding the symbolic possibility of procreation in these couples, it brings up an interesting question. What purpose does it serve to grant them benefits? What real, tangible benefits does society get in return for sanctioning and supporting these couples in, presumably, committed monogamous relationships? And, for the record, I’m not talking about esoteric “benfits” like “pleasing God” or some magical combination of genders.

What real, tangible benefits apply here that don’t apply to same-sex couples? What do these heterosexual couples do for one another that same-sex couples don’t? The answers come together in a convincing conservative case for same-sex marriage.

The argument about caregiving is also a very conservative one. As [Jonathan] Rauch points out, ?from society?s point of view, an unattached person is an accident waiting to happen. The burdens of contingency are likely to fall, immediately and sometimes crushingly, on people – relatives, friends, neighbours – who have enough problems of their own, and then on charities and welfare agencies. We all suffer periods of illness, sadness, distress, fury. What happens to us, and what happens to the people around us, when we desperately need a hand but find none to hold? If marriage has any meaning at all, it is that when you collapse from a stroke, there will be another person whose ?job? it is to drop everything and come to your aid. Or that when you come home after being fired, there will be someone to talk you out of committing a massacre or killing yourself. To be married is to know there is someone out there for whom you are always first in line?. Denying this option to gay couples places this burden of care on the state – how is this good conservative policy?

Of course, the various ordinances and amendments passed in various states since Watson adopted Spado, not only are states denying gay couples the option of marriage, but also denying the possibility of domestic partnerships and civil unions, and leaving other legal arrangements in question depending on how the various amendments are interpreted.

And, given that same-sex couples who marry in Massachusetts of enter into civil unions in other states, will find those relationships aren’t recognized outside their states of origin, there still aren’t many good options for same-sex couples. We can’t “jet get married” to make sure our loved one’s are protected. So, ironically, adoption may be the most effective (albeit the strangest) way to secure some protections.


As amusing as it is, on some level, to watch people deal with more trouble than they might have had if Spado and Watson had been able to marry, it’s a lot less funny when you think about how the lack of marriage equality affects families who don’t have the wealth of, say, and IBM founder to squabble over. The stakes, when you think about it, are a lot higher, though less money is involved.

Far be it from me to give financial advice to anyone, let alone Suze Orman, but if she wants to avoid some of her “money fears” in this case, she and Travis might do well to go to court. Family court, that is.

Crossposted from The Republic of T.

Previous post

Family Values Behind Bars

Next post

The Harpy