Helping Philadelphians navigate marriage equality, legally

The Whitewood v. Wolf decision got corks popping and wedding bells ringing, but it’s also raised a series of questions now that same-sex marriage is the law in Pennsylvania – from joint tax filing to estate planning.

Marriage equality: What Does It Mean for You addressed those concerns and offered counsel on others Wednesday night.  The two-hour joint town hall meeting at the William Way LGBT Community Center tackled topics such as the how-to’s of getting married – or divorced – and thornier issues of adoption, wills and the relative benefits of sticking with a life partnership or civil union.

Marriage equality town hall

An assortment of legal minds gathered at the William Way LGBT Community Center to discuss a post-Whitewood world. (l-r):
R. Barrett Marshall, the Mazzoni Center; Rebecca Levin, Philadelphia Bar Association’s LGBT Rights Committee; Mary Catherine Roper, ACLU of Pennsylvania; Margaret Klaw, Berner Klaw & Watson; Reynelle Brown Staley, PCHR; David Cohen, Drexel University; and Helen Casale, Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller.

An all-star panel of law professors and attorneys, including PCHR Deputy Director Reynelle Brown Staley, reviewed a swath of topics– from a recap of the decision to the rights and responsibilities of marriage to adoption and parenting concerns to divorce. A meaty Q&A followed.

Staley also discussed the status of the city’s life partnership program, which will stay in place unless and until City Council takes action to change it.

Since 1998, PCHR has administered the program, geared toward same-sex couples wishing to demonstrate their commitment to each other for purposes of securing some of the legal and financial protections married couples enjoy. To date, some 900 couples have registered with the program.

Still, with the advent of marriage equality, the policy is now under review and may be adjusted, Staley said.

There is some relative security that marriage equality is here to stay. The threat of reversal on appeal is largely gone, since Gov. Tom Corbett said he would not pursue the matter further, and marriage equality cases have mostly been found in the affirmative in courts across the United States, said David Cohen, a law professor at Drexel University.

There is a chance, though seemingly remote today, that a future U.S. Supreme Court case would reverse the progress underway in 19 states and the District of Columbia. The greater likelihood is that the justices will pass on taking up a definitive case since so many states are moving forward on the issue, Cohen said.

Town hall Q&A

PCHR Deputy Director Reynelle Brown Staley discusses life partnerships during the town hall Q&A.

Despite the romance, marriage is a matter of contracts, so it’s best to go into a situation with eyes wide open and plenty of contingency planning, the panelists agreed. For more details on how much marriage can impact day-to-day dealings, the Mazzoni Center and Dechert LLP also released and distributed How Marriage Counts: 572 Ways Marriage Counts in Pennsylvania.

The upside: a lot of commonly assumed perks of marriage now will be extended to same-sex couples, from legal name changes to making medical decisions for a spouse.

Bottom line: personalized legal help still will go a long way to alleviating headaches down the road. For those with lesser means, the Mazzoni Center and the AIDS Law Project are among the places to get help for free or on a sliding scale, said R. Barrett Marshall of Mazzoni.

Some may need to secure those services sooner than others. While U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III’s ruling opened the door to marriage licenses and recognition of marriages that took place elsewhere, those holding licenses from Montgomery County remain in limbo.

There’s still some wrangling as to whether that paperwork is legally sound, so prior to securing marriage-related benefits such as insurance policies, legal help is highly recommended, said Mary Catherine Roper of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, a lead attorney in Whitewood.

More than 60 people attended the town hall. The ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Mazzoni Center, the Philadelphia Bar Association and PCHR sponsored the event.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s