June was the Month for Marriage Equality – Samuel W. Seymour

Samuel W. Seymour

President’s Column, July 2011

The month of June brought equality to same-sex couples who wish to marry in New York. The New York City Bar Association commends Governor Cuomo and the Legislature on the historic passage of legislation that allows same-sex couples to have the same legal status that all married couples enjoy, with its attendant rights, duties, benefits, and obligations under the law. It’s a goal that the City Bar, along with a host of other organizations and individuals, worked long and hard to achieve, and we applaud the steadfast efforts of all those who contributed to this achievement.

Perhaps the City Bar’s most talked-about contribution was the 2007 report we issued with the Empire State Pride Agenda, “1,324 Reasons for Marriage Equality in New York State.” The report sought to catalogue all of the statutes and regulations that provide benefits to married couples, which are effectively denied those who cannot marry. This staggering number of denied rights proved to be a powerful factor for many legislators as they contemplated this issue, including Senator Mark Grisanti, who mentioned the 1,300-plus rights as contributing to his decision to support the marriage equality legislation.

In the months before the legislature voted, the City Bar strongly advocated for passage, driving home the argument that there exists no legal right to deny same-sex couples the right to marry. The City Bar’s latest report on this issue—entitled “Why Should New York Support Marriage Equality for Same-Sex Couples?”—illustrated the wide-ranging areas affected by the ability to marry, including health care, housing, child raising, inheritance, wrongful death actions and property rights. The report was signed by twenty of our committees, each covering different areas of the law. These endorsements indicate the breadth of legal issues faced by unmarried same-sex couples.

On May 17th, nearly two dozen state and city bar associations gathered for a joint press conference at the City Bar to urge the legislature to end legal discrimination against same-sex couples wishing to marry in New York. It was a strong show of solidarity by the legal community for what many have referred to as the civil rights issue of our time. Making the legal case for marriage equality served to highlight inequities in the law, as well as the inadequacy of civil unions as a proposed remedy for same-sex couples.

Even with the passage of marriage equality, there are still a host of issues facing same-sex couples in New York, many in connection with the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and differences between New York’s law and the laws of other states that don’t recognize same-sex marriage. Areas that present challenges include Social Security, federal tax law, divorce, custody and property. For example, under federal tax law, married people who inherit money or property after the death of a spouse aren’t subject to the federal estate tax; but since the U.S. government doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage under DOMA, same-sex couples legally married in New York will not be able to claim the marital deduction. Other issues may arise if a same-sex couple weds in New York, moves to another state and subsequently seeks to get a divorce.

While New York has joined five other states and the District of Columbia in legalizing same-sex marriage, twenty-nine states have constitutional bans on same-sex marriage, while twelve others have laws against it. However, we hope that other states will soon follow in our footsteps. The road to resolving all these issues is still a long one but, as a lawyer working and living in New York, I am proud of our State’s leadership position, and of its decision finally to do what is right.