Nina Smith

Alimony and Same-Sex Marriage

Filed By Nina Smith | October 12, 2007 7:50 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: gay couples, gay marriage, marriage, same-sex couples

Congratulations gay people — you are about to discover the joys of alimony.” – Craig Ferguson, on legalizing gay marriage

My partner, Jeanine and I only watch television once a week and this summer our show was “Big Love” on HBO. Big Love is about a polygamous suburban family living outside of Salt Lake City. Jeanine’s ex-girlfriend, Deb (from years ago and best friend forever), joined us on Monday nights. Mostly because Deb needed a place to do her laundry but we all got hooked on the show last season. Deb and I refer to each other as sister wife.

When Big Love first aired, many parallels were drawn between the gay marriage movement and polygamists. At first I was really offended but then the longer I watched the show, the “Henricksons” seemed increasingly like other families. Normal. Maybe that’s how straight people feel about gays when they first get to know us.

Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer are the creators of Big Love and they’re partners in real life. Olsen was interviewed in The New York Times and said:

The show was conceived as a prism through which to look at the "struggle for the common good over the individual good" that exists in any family.

In the National Review Online, Stanley Kurtz interviewed Scheffer and writes:

Family structure shouldn’t matter as long as people love each other. Scheffer adds that what attracted him to the Big Love project was the subversive nature of how we deal with family values… I think what’s really exciting about the show is the nonjudgmental look we have on our characters.

I’m pro-gay marriage and long for the day when I can legally marry Jeanine. Deb has to fend for herself. Plus, she’s into men these days. Sorry sister wife.

I understand that with marriage, I get both the good and the bad — all the rights and liabilities afforded by the institution. Being registered as a domestic partner is not the same thing. Some queers think this is enough. But it’s not and here’s a money story from the news that explains why.

Awhile back, the Los Angeles Times recounted the story of an Orange County man that is appealing an order for him to pay spousal support to his ex-wife, who is in a domestic partnership. Maura Dolan writes:

Ron Garber knew his former wife was living with another woman — and had taken her last name — when he agreed to pay her $1,250 a month in alimony. What he didn’t know was that the two women had registered with the state as domestic partners under a law that was supposed to mirror marriage law, Garber said. State marriage laws say that alimony ends when the former spouse remarries, and Garber reasons he should be off the hook, given that domestic partnership is akin to marriage. But an Orange County judge has decided that registered partnership is cohabitation, not marriage, and that Garber must pay.

I agree with the husband in this case: why should he have to pay alimony when she’s “remarried” to a woman? But, according to the laws of California, she’s not remarried and that’s a problem… at least for Garber. Dolan continues:

Lawyers in favor of same-sex marriage are watching the Orange County alimony case and say they will cite it to the state high court as an argument for uniting gay and heterosexual couples under one system: marriage. Therese Stewart, San Francisco’s chief deputy city attorney, said the alimony ruling and other gaps in the domestic partnership law ‘highlight the irrationality of having a separate, unequal scheme’ for same-sex partners.

A Court of Appeal last year upheld the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, citing the state’s domestic partners law and ruling that it was up to the Legislature to decide whether gays could wed. The state attorney general’s office has argued that same-sex marriage is not needed because gays already enjoy the rights of marriage under the domestic partners law.

If domestic partnerships were equal to marriage then Garber wouldn’t have to pay. As it stands today, he’ll be forking over five years of alimony. Do you agree or disagree with the ruling? I welcome your comments below.

Nina blogs about money over at Queercents.

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Ellen Andersen Ellen Andersen | October 13, 2007 4:55 AM

Wow, Nina. What an interesting story, yet another queer twist on marriage. Thanks for bringing it to us.

Hmm, I guess my initial reaction is to say that I both agree with the ruling and think that Garber got the short end of the stick (so to speak). Domestic partnerships aren't marriage, and so the judge was right to say so. Since state statutes specifically itemize "marriage" as the event that triggers the end of alimony, he's out of luck on this one. But it's a great example of how "separate but equal" creates all sorts of problems.

I'd like to think that this example would help legislatures to open marriage equally (though, of course, the California legislature has already done that. Twice.) On the other hand, I think it's more likely that state legislatures will just revise alimony provisions to say that registering a domestic partnership ends alimony payments.


Thanks for the comment and you're right in thinking that it will probably be the state legislatures that revise the alimony provisions before they change laws to recognize same-sex marriage.