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Legal Learning: Kathy and Val, happily married at last

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From James  H. Manahan, J.D. 

It has now been eight months since same-sex marriage became legal in Minnesota. So far at least 2,934 same-sex couples have wed in cities and towns across Minnesota, according to statistics compiled by the Minneapolis Star- Tribune. In Hennepin County about 25 percent of marriage licenses have been issued to same-sex couples since Aug. 1.

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In Lake County the numbers are much smaller, of course. Only four same-sex couples have received marriage licenses here, 11 percent of the 35 licenses issued since Aug. 1. However, in Cook County 14 of the 39 licenses issued have been to same-sex couples (36 percent).

I spoke with two women who got married in Cook County last fall. Val Ulstad and Kathy Ogle have been together for 31 years and say it was “a joy to finally be able to do what everybody else does when they’re in love.” Both of them are medical doctors, a cardiologist and an oncologist, who met at the University of Minnesota Medical School and worked at Hennepin County Medical Center and other clinics. Now they have left clinical practice and are running a consulting business that teaches leadership development (www.cascadebluff.net). For years they have spent part of each year at their cabin on the North Shore of Lake Superior.

Being married, they say, allows them “to participate in the path people choose,” just as heterosexual couples do. But they point out that it also gives them many legal rights and responsibilities they were previously denied. They mention inheriting social security benefits, filing joint income tax returns, and visiting each other in the hospital.

A study conducted by Professor Anthony Winer and others at William Mitchell College of Law found 515 Minnesota statutes that provide rights and assign responsibilities to couples based on the legal definition of marriage. For example, an individual cannot be compelled to testify against his or her spouse in court (Minn. St. 595.02). A surviving spouse is entitled to sue for wrongful death (Minn. St. 466.05). A married person has responsibility for financial support for a spouse; responsibility for decisions relating to medical care and treatment; priority to be conservator, guardian, or personal representative for a spouse; the ability to inherit property from a spouse without a written will; the ability to insure a spouse; survivor benefits under workers’ compensation laws and government pensions; and presumptions of parentage for children born during the marriage. Marriage also provides for an orderly process for divorce, parenting time, and property division if the couple splits up. See http://project515.org

The U.S. Supreme Court case last June that struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (U.S. v. Windsor) involved a same-sex couple (Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer) who married one another in Canada in 2007. Spyer died in 2009 and left her estate to Windsor. The IRS hit Windsor with an estate tax of $363,000, refusing to recognize their marriage. The Supreme Court ruled that the DOMA definition of marriage as solely between opposite-sex couples was a denial of equal protection and unconstitutional under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The IRS therefore had to treat Windsor like any other surviving spouse, and could not levy an estate tax against her.

I asked Kathy and Val if people on the North Shore treat them as they would any other married couple, and they say people here have been very accepting. In fact, they like the North Shore so much they plan to make it their permanent home.

Last fall the Highway 61 magazine published an article about Val and Kathy, pointing out that “now that more Minnesotans are able to get married, businesses providing services for weddings – lodging establishments, restaurants, caterers, photographers, florists and more – may be busier than ever.”

“People love to get married on the North Shore,” said photographer Jess Oullis. And if Val and Kathy are any indication, people also love to live on the North Shore.

James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate and was named one of Minnesota’s Top Ten Attorneys. He now handles family law, wills, and probate in and around Lake County, and does mediation everywhere. The opinions expressed in this column are those of its author.

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