Q&A: Am I Responsible for my Domestic Partner’s Medical Bills?

iStock_000001166476SmallQuestion: I am curious about financial liability with domestic partnership…i.e., if one of us should fall ill and, in the process, incur monumental medical bills above and beyond what Medicare or Supplemental insurance will pay, is the other partner liable for the bill should the ill partner die?

Answer: The answer to this question depends on the type of domestic partnership registration and the law that applies to the claim or debt.

There is generally no joint liability for these types of debts in a local or employer-based domestic partnership. However, under some city registrations, such as San Francisco, domestic partners are jointly liable for their “basic living expenses” – defined as the cost of basic food and shelter and “expenses which are paid at least in part by a program or benefit for which the partner qualified because of the domestic partnership.” This could arguably include medical expenses if they were paid in part by a health insurance program, which the sick partner qualified for as a result of the domestic partnership. A creditor, such as a hospital or insurance company could make a claim as a third-party beneficiary against the surviving partner based upon the city registration. However, it’s my understanding that this is rarely done.

If the partners are in a marriage-equivalent state registration (such as a California domestic partnership or a New Jersey civil union), then they are subject to most of the same state laws as married couples, including those laws affecting property rights and responsibilities for debts to third parties. Debts governed by state law will extend to the surviving domestic partner, just like they would with a married spouse.

If the claim is based on federal law, such as a Medicaid reimbursement, the domestic partnership won’t likely create joint liability since the federal government doesn’t recognize couples in civil unions or domestic partnerships as “married.” But, that rule could change in the future.

If you haven’t yet taken the plunge with your partner, and you’re really concerned about his or her debts and the potential for joint liability as a result of your union, it’s probably best not to get married or register anywhere.

For more Nolo information on same-sex marriage, domestic partnerships and registrations, click here.

You can find comprehensive coverage of these and other same-sex legal issues in our Same-Sex Marriage and Domestic Partnership titles.

The IRS Will Recognize All Same-Sex Marriages

Today, just two months after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the U.S. Department of the Treasury ruled that all legally married same-sex couples will be treated as married for federal tax purposes.

The Supreme Court’s June 26, 2013 decision in the Windsor case made it clear that same-sex married couples living in one of the U.S. jurisdictions that recognize same-sex marriage would qualify for federal benefits previously limited to opposite-sex married couples, including federal tax benefits. However, the Court did not address whether the IRS (or other federal agencies) would recognize the marriages of same-sex married couples living in non-recognition states.

Under Thursday’s Treasury ruling, all same-sex couples that are legally married in any U.S. state, the District of Columbia, a U.S. territory or a foreign country will be recognized as married under all federal tax provisions where marriage is a factor. This includes provisions governing:

  • filing status
  • personal and dependency exemptions
  • standard deductions
  • employee benefits
  • IRA contributions
  • the earned income tax credit, and
  • the child tax credit.

The Treasury Department further clarified that federal recognition for tax purposes applies whether a same-sex married couple lives in a jurisdiction that recognizes same-sex marriage (such as California) or a non-recognition jurisdiction (such as Texas).

In short, it’s the place of celebration (where the marriage took place) not the place of residence (where the married couple lives) that counts. But the decision does not apply to same-sex couples in domestic partnerships or civil unions.

“Today’s ruling provides certainty and clear, coherent tax filing guidance for all legally married same-sex couples nationwide. It provides access to benefits, responsibilities and protections under federal tax law that all Americans deserve,” said Secretary Jacob J. Lew. “This ruling also assures legally married same-sex couples that they can move freely throughout the country knowing that their federal filing status will not change.”

Legally married same-sex couples will file their 2013 federal income tax return using either the “married filing jointly” or “married filing separately” filing status. They may also choose to file an amended return as a married couple and a refund claim for tax years 2010, 2011 and 2012.

For more information on the Treasury ruling, click here.

Fore up-to-date information on same- sex marriage laws, check out Nolo’s LGBT Law center.



Ninth Circuit Lifts the Stay: Same-Sex Marriages Begin in California

After SCOTUS dismissed the Hollingsworth v. Perry Prop. 8 case on Wednesday, most legal experts concluded that it would take up to 30 days for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to lift the stay of the U.S. District Court’s order striking down Prop. 8 – but they were wrong. Today, just two days after the Supreme Court’s decision, the Ninth Circuit lifted the stay of the federal court order, immediately clearing the path for same-sex couples to marry in California.

Late this afternoon, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a one-sentence opinion that states: “The stay in the above matter is dissolved effective immediately.”

Governor Jerry Brown then ordered that “marriage licenses must be issued to same-sex couples immediately.”  He also took to his Twitter account to declare, “Same-sex marriage is now the law in California.”

Both of the plaintiff couples in the Perry case were married in public ceremonies this evening. Around 5:00 p.m., California State Attorney General Kamala Harris officiated the wedding of plaintiffs Sandra Stier and Kris Perry at San Francisco City Hall. About an hour and a half later, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa married the other plaintiffs, Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo.

San Francisco City Hall will be open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 29th and 30th to issue marriage licenses. The Los Angeles County registrar and the clerk’s office have promised to deputize additional marriage commissioners and extend days and locations to handle the expected rush of weddings. Same-sex marriages should resume across the rest of California beginning Monday, July 1, 2013.

For up-to-date information about same-sex marriage, domestic partnerships and civil unions, check out the LGBT Law center on Nolo.com.

The Wedding Bells Will Ring – Gay Marriage to Resume in California

picture of marriage equalitySCOTUS delivered another much-anticipated marriage equality ruling today when it dismissed the California Prop. 8 case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, on a legal technicality. The court declined to determine the proposition’s constitutionality and instead ruled that Prop. 8 supporters (private citizens) lacked “standing” to appeal the lower court’s decision regarding the gay marriage ban.

A Little Background

In August 2010, United States District Court Judge Vaughn Walker (a federal judge) overturned Prop. 8 (the voter-approved ban on gay marriage) ruling that the ballot measure violated the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution. Judge Walker issued a statewide injunction against enforcement of Prop. 8, but also issued a stay (delay) of his own order pending appeal.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Judge Walker’s decision and kept the stay in place pending the Supreme Court’s review.

What Did SCOTUS Really Decide: What is Legal Standing?

The Supreme Court dismissed the Perry case because, it ruled, the proponents of Prop. 8 did not have “legal standing” to appeal the Ninth Circuit order where state officials, including the governor, refused to defend the law. Lack of standing means that the Prop. 8 supporters could not show they suffered a sufficient harm from the lower court’s decision to support their participation in the case.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, said that the Prop. 8 supporters had no “personal stake” in defending it, at least no more than other ordinary citizens of California. “It is not enough,” Roberts wrote, “that the party invoking the power of the court have a keen interest in the issue.” SCOTUS remanded the case to the Ninth Circuit.

What Happens Next: When Will Same-Sex Marriages Resume?

Although this decision has cleared the way for same-sex marriages to resume in California, they will not begin immediately. After the ruling, the Supreme Court clerk sent a letter to the Ninth Circuit Appeals Court saying that its formal judgment will not be issued for at least 25 days. It will then be up to the court of appeals to take care of a legal formality — lifting the stay of the injunction. Same-sex couples will not be able to marry until the Ninth Circuit confirms they’ve lifted the stay.

All of this could take a few weeks, but it looks like same-sex weddings could begin taking place in California as soon as July 2013.

In the meantime, California Governor Jerry Brown has directed all California county officials and court clerks to comply with Judge Walker’s injunction against the enforcement of Prop. 8 and issue marriage licenses as soon as the stay is lifted.

It’s been reported that Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom (one of the earliest and most prominent political proponents of same-sex marriage in California) believes gay marriage will resume in California within 30 days. And California Attorney General Kamala Harris told reporters, “As soon as they lift that stay, marriages are on . . . .the wedding bells will ring.”

California is the 13th state to recognize same-sex marriage. (See also Marriage Equality Update:  Ten and Counting)  For up-to-date information about same-sex marriage, domestic partnerships and civil unions, check out the LGBT Law center on Nolo.com.

SCOTUS Has Spoken: DOMA’s Definition of Marriage is Unconstitutional

picture of marriage equalityToday’s historic SCOTUS ruling marks a monumental step in the marriage equality movement. The Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor puts an end to the federal definition of marriage under the Defense of Marriage Act or “DOMA,” which limited marriage to a union between a man and a woman. Now, same-sex couples that are legally married in any of the 13 states that recognize gay marriage (or D.C.) are considered “married” in the federal government’s eyes, and can enjoy the same federal benefits that opposite-sex married couples do, including immigration status, Social Security benefits and federal tax benefits.

The DOMA case involved Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer, a lesbian couple that was married in Canada in 2007 – after being in a relationship for 40 years. When Spyer died in 2009, Windsor was forced to pay $363,053 in taxes on Spyer’s estate, which she would not have had to pay if she’d been Spyer’s husband. She argued that DOMA, which prevents her from being considered Spyer’s spouse for federal purposes, cost her $363,053.

In a 5-4 decision, with the majority opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, SCOTUS found that the section of DOMA defining marriage as between a man and a woman violates the Equal Protection Clause and is therefore unconstitutional.

There are still some questions left to be answered, including whether the feds will recognize same-sex marriages based on the “place of celebration” – where the couple was married, or based on the “place of residence” – where the couple resides. For example, how will the feds treat the union of a same-sex couple that married legally in Rhode Island (place of celebration) but then moved to Texas (place of residence), where same-sex marriage is not recognized?

There is no clear answer at the moment, but some legal analysts suggest that because the federal government currently uses the place of celebration standard (not taking into account where a couple later resides) for most federal benefits, they will likely continue to do so. However, that question is reserved for another day. Right now, millions of Americans across the nation, both gay and straight, are cheering the demise of DOMA – described best, I think, by President Obama as “Righting the wrong . . . of discrimination enshrined in law.”

Next up:  Gay Marriage to Resume in California.

To learn more about the DOMA decision and how it may impact your right to federal benefits, check out The Supreme Court’s DOMA Decision on Nolo.com. 

Domestic Goddess Puts the Spotlight on Domestic Violence

Nigella Lawson, a British celebrity chef and author of several bestselling books, is known to many as a “domestic goddess.” Last week, the public discovered that Lawson is also a victim of  domestic violence. Widely-circulated photos showed Lawson’s husband, Charles Saatchi, grabbing her by the throat during an argument at a London restaurant. In the pictures, Lawson looks distraught and fearful and is shown breaking down in tears. Lawson hasn’t filed charges against her husband, but it’s reported that she and her children have since left the family home.

Yesterday, Saatchi voluntarily accepted what is known as a “caution” or official warning from the London police about the incident – it’s unclear if they are going to pursue the matter any further. Publicly, however, Saatchi has denied any violence against his wife and claims that he and Lawson were involved in nothing more than a “playful tiff.” But the photos clearly document behavior that would be labeled as domestic violence here in the states.

What is Domestic Violence?

Several California family law statutes provide a good example of what typically constitutes domestic violence, and although domestic violence laws vary somewhat from state to state, they prohibit the same general categories of behavior.

In California, domestic violence is “abuse” or “threats of abuse” when the person being abused and the abuser are or have been in an intimate relationship (married or domestic partners, dating or used to date, live or lived together, have a child together, or are closely related by blood or marriage).

In California, “abuse” includes the following:

  • physically hurting (or trying to hurt) someone intentionally or recklessly
  • sexual assault
  • making someone reasonably afraid that they or someone else are about to be seriously hurt
  • harassing, stalking, threatening, or hitting someone
  • disturbing someone’s peace, or
  • destroying someone’s personal property.

It’s important to remember that physical abuse is not just hitting. Abuse can be kicking, shoving, pushing, choking, throwing things, scaring someone, or keeping someone from freely coming and going and can also include emotional, verbal or psychological abuse.

How Prevalent is Domestic Violence?

As Lawson’s situation makes clear, domestic violence crosses all social classes. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, and an estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year. 85% of domestic violence victims are women.

Most victims of domestic violence never report the incident(s) of abuse to the police. Sadly, if it wasn’t for the paparazzi photographer that snapped the pictures, Saatchi’s abuse of Lawson probably would have remained a secret.

How to Get Help

Unfortunately, domestic violence is a common ground for divorce, and a divorce proceeding can escalate already present domestic abuse or be the catalyst for violence. Thus, many experienced family law attorneys are familiar with local domestic violence laws. If you have questions about filing a domestic violence case against your spouse or partner, you may want to contact a family law attorney for help.

If you can’t afford an attorney, check with your local bar association, as they may provide pro bono (free) legal representation for lower-income victims of domestic violence. Most states offer domestic violence services and many counties and cities have local shelters where victims can go for help.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline website contains useful information about victim services. Click on the “Get Help in Your Area” link under the “Get Help” tab to find resources and domestic violence services in your state. You can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE.

If you or your children are in immediate danger, you should call the police and get to a safe place.


Rupert Murdoch Files For No-Fault Divorce

Rupert Murdoch

Today, Rupert Murdoch, the 82-year-old CEO of News Corp. and one of the wealthiest men in America, filed for a “no-fault” divorce from his third wife, Wendi Deng (44), after 14 years of marriage. The divorce papers were filed in New York State Supreme Court and cited only an “irretrievable breakdown of the marriage.”

Yale-educated Deng was working for News Corp. subsidiary Star TV in Hong Kong when she met Murdoch in 1997. The couple married in 1999, just a few weeks after the ink dried on his divorce from second wife, Anna Torv Murdoch. In that well-publicized divorce, Torv received a $1.7 billion settlement – believed to be the largest divorce settlement in history.

While the divorce from Deng could prove to be, well, costly, it doesn’t appear that it will necessarily get ugly based on the following.

Murdoch and Deng Appear Civil

Murdoch seems to have a soft spot for Deng. He’s given her well-deserved props for her professional accomplishments, including her work in film production and for her quick reflexes at a 2011 British parliamentary hearing on allegations of News Corp.’s phone hacking. When a protestor threw a shaving cream-flavored pie in Murdoch’s face, Deng, a former competitive volleyball player, sprang into action and gave the protestor a serious smack. The exchange, which was caught on film, went viral and was dubbed “the slap heard around the world.” Murdoch later thanked Deng for coming to his defense.

If Valid, the Prenuptial Agreement Will Control the Outcome

It’s been reported that the couple signed a prenuptial agreement before their marriage. With Murdoch’s wealth – his net worth is estimated to be roughly $11.2 billion – it would be shocking if they hadn’t.

If Deng doesn’t fight the prenup, or if she does contest it and the prenup is found to be valid, it will likely control both alimony and the division of any property. New York laws tend to favor the enforcement of premarital agreements, and Murdoch’s legal team probably wrote a reasonable, iron-clad prenup that will hold up in court.

The couple does have two daughters together though, so child support may still be an issue. Generally, couples cannot contract around child support and custody laws in a prenup. Courts don’t typically enforce prenuptial provisions that attempt to predetermine child support or custody. Instead, judges have the final say on child-related issues at the time of divorce.

Murdoch Cited Only No-Fault Grounds For the Divorce

Finally, Murdoch filed for a “no-fault” divorce, which is based on an “irretrievable breakdown of the marriage” for more than six months. This means that he‘s not blaming his wife for the divorce; he’s simply stating that he and Deng have grown apart to the point where the marriage isn’t salvageable.

With a no-fault divorce in New York, neither spouse needs to point the finger at the other with specific allegations of bad conduct, so there’s no need to air out any dirty laundry in court. In all likelihood, Murdoch and Deng will negotiate a private and confidential divorce settlement in a fancy New York lawyer’s office, without setting foot in a public courthouse.

To learn more about prenuptial agreements, see Prenuptial Agreements – An Overview, and Prenuptial Agreements, by Katherine Stoner and Shae Irving, J.D.

To learn more about no-fault divorce in New York, see New York Grounds for Divorce


Dealing with Deadbeats – How to Enforce Child Support

Sadly, many non-custodial parents refuse to pay court-ordered child support, which places a heavy financial burden on children and their custodial parents. In order to combat this, federal and state legislatures have enacted strict policies aimed at enforcing support. The nationwide crackdown on these “deadbeats” has made it more difficult for non-custodial parents to shirk financial obligations to their kids. Below, I’ll review some powerful enforcement tools available at the state and federal levels.

Establishing Child Support

State laws govern how child support is calculated, but most states rely on a specific formula that considers various factors, including parents’ incomes and time spent with each child. An experienced, local family law attorney will know how to file a request for child support on your behalf.

If you can’t afford an attorney, don’t give up hope. All states offer some child support services to help parents establish, enforce and collect child support. These government-sponsored child support offices are typically referred to as the “Office of Child Support Services” (OCSS) or “Department of Child Support Services” (DCSS). The “Getting Help” section below explains how to get in touch with your local OCSS.

For more information on calculating child support in your state, check out Divorcenet.com, which has an entire section dedicated to child support guidelines.

Ways to Enforce Child Support

Once established, a child support order must be obeyed. If not, custodial parents may ask an attorney or their local OCSS for help “encouraging” the delinquent parent to pay. Parents that fail to pay child support may be subject to severe penalties, including:

  • Wage Deductions – child support is taken directly out of the non-custodial parent’s wages.
  • Federal Income Tax Intercepts – the state can intercept a large tax refund to cover late or missing child support payments.
  • License Suspensions and Revocations – a driver’s license and professional license(s) may be revoked.
  • Passport Restrictions.
  • Contempt of Court – this is a court order that may result in a fine or jail time.

Federal Prosecution of Deadbeat Parents

The U.S. Office of the Inspector General (OIG) can intervene in child-support cases where the non-custodial parent lives in a state other than where the child lives, and:

  • refuses to pay child support for over one year
  • where the amount owing is more than $5000, or
  • where the non-custodial parent travels to another state or country to avoid paying child support.

The punishment includes fines and up to six months in prison (or both) for a first offense. For a second offense, or where child support hasn’t been paid for two years, or the support owed is more than $10,000, the punishment is a fine of up to $250,000 or two years in prison, or both.

Some of the most notorious deadbeat parents are also added to OIG’s Most Wanted Deadbeats list online.

“Project Save Our Children” (PSOC) is a multiagency task force dedicated to identifying, investigating and prosecuting the worst child support cases. PSOC goes after offenders who meet the criteria for federal prosecution under the Deadbeat Parents Punishment Acts. Its members are from the Administration for Children and Families, the Office of Child Support Enforcement, OIG Special Agents, the U.S. Marshals Service, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Department of Justice.

Getting Help

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Child Support Enforcement website has a lot of useful information about child support and an OCSS search tool that provides contact information for offices in all 50 states and D.C.

Q&A: My Ex Married A Millionaire, Can I Stop Paying Alimony?

$$$Probably, but you might not be able to stop paying right away. If you and your former spouse have an agreement or court order that says alimony ends automatically when your ex remarries, you can stop paying after the wedding. If not, you’ll have to look to your state’s laws for the answer.

In some states, like Missouri, spousal support ends automatically when your ex-spouse remarries. But if you’re in a state that doesn’t follow this rule, such as Michigan or Ohio, you’ll have to continue paying support until you get a new court order that says you can stop – even if your ex marries someone with beaucoup bucks.

Before you race back to court, you might want to try and work it out with your former spouse. If your ex agrees to end support, memorialize the agreement in a writing signed by both of you. You may want to hire an attorney to draft the agreement on your behalf. An experienced family law attorney will know which legal terms need to go into the contract to make it enforceable. Next, you must take your agreement to court so a judge can turn it into an order, which puts an official end to your alimony payments.

If your ex won’t agree, you’ll have to file a motion to modify or terminate support. As long as there is no agreement or court order that prohibits you from requesting an adjustment, a court can modify alimony if there’s a “material or substantial change in circumstances.” Remarriage is typically considered a substantial change in circumstances that proves alimony isn’t necessary anymore. Although laws vary from state to state, courts generally terminate alimony when a supported ex remarries, even if the new spouse isn’t über rich.

What if your ex lives with a wealthy new partner, but they have no plans to marry? In many states, cohabitation (meaning living in a marriage-like relationship) is a material change in circumstances that justifies cutting off support. A cohabiting couple’s combined incomes and shared expenses usually reduce or eliminate the need for alimony. If you can prove your ex has shacked up with someone like Oprah Winfrey or Donald Trump (eeew), you have a good shot at getting off the alimony hook.

To learn more about spousal support in your state, including how courts set the amount, check out Divorcenet.com’s center on alimony.



Marriage Equality Update: Ten and Counting

picture of marriage equalityRhode Island is the Tenth State to Legalize Gay Marriage

With the May 2, 2013 passage of its same-sex marriage bill, Rhode Island became the tenth U.S. state to recognize gay marriage. The new law takes effect in Rhode Island on August 1, 2013, when same-sex marriage ceremonies will begin taking place.

As of the writing of this post, gay marriage is legal in 10 U.S. states – Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington – plus the District of Columbia.

More States are Following Suit: Delaware will Become the 11th

With all major polls now showing that a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage, other states are quickly following suit. Just today, the Delaware Senate voted to legalize gay marriage. The bill now goes to Democratic Governor Jack Markell, who has already promised to sign it.

On May 9, the Minnesota state House will vote on a same-sex marriage bill: Minnesota House Speaker Paul Thissen says he believes the Democratic majority has enough votes to pass the bill. A vote in Illinois may follow later this month. The Illinois state Senate has already passed the marriage equality bill, as has a House committee. If it gets approval in the full House vote, the bill goes to Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, who vowed to sign it.

And we’re very close to resolution on the landmark California Proposition 8 and DOMA cases, both of which were heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this past March.

What’s the Proposition 8 Case all About?

“Prop. 8” is the 2008 California ballot measure that effectively overturned the California Supreme Court’s ruling that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. Prop. 8 amended the California Constitution to recognize only those marriages between a man and a woman.

In 2010, Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker overturned Prop. 8, finding that it discriminated against same-sex couples in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed and upheld Judge Walker’s decision, but Prop. 8 supporters appealed the ruling. On March 26, 2013, the Supreme Court, or SCOTUS, heard oral argument on the Prop. 8 case and took it under submission.

In a nutshell, the Supremes are reviewing a 9th Circuit decision that addressed the freedom to marry in California. SCOTUS may uphold (or overturn) the 9th Circuit’s decision as it applies to California, or rule more broadly and issue a decision that has far-reaching effects on same-sex marriage recognition across the country.

What are the Issues in the DOMA case?

The federal Defense of Marriage Act or “DOMA” was enacted by Congress in 1996 to nullify same-sex marriage for purposes of federal law. DOMA defines marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman, and prohibits all same-sex married couples from receiving federal benefits opposite-sex married couples receive, such as Social Security benefits, tax benefits and immigration status. SCOTUS heard oral argument regarding the challenge to DOMA on March 27, 2013 – the day after the Prop. 8 oral argument took place.

If the Supremes strike down DOMA’s definition of marriage, same-sex married couples will be entitled to the same federal benefits opposite-sex couples receive.

There’s no way to predict SCOTUS’s rulings, but stay tuned – decisions in both cases are expected as early as June 2013. However these cases play out, it’s clear that the marriage equality movement is gaining widespread support and legal validation across the country.