In sickness and in health...
April 17, 2014 3:33 AM   Subscribe

A couple's final journey. "Chris MacLellan and Bernard Richard Schiffer never exchanged “for better or for worse” vows. As a gay couple, marriage wasn’t an option in Florida. Instead, they lived together and loved each other for 11 years."
posted by HuronBob (27 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Powerful story. People who think same-sex marriage rights are just a matter of opinion should read this — it just might lead them to question their assumptions.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:52 AM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

A tearjerker in the best sense of the word. Losing someone dear is hard enough, how much harder it must be if you also have to worry about being excluded from your partner's last days, of not being able to fullfill their wishes.
posted by MartinWisse at 4:40 AM on April 17, 2014

No vows -- and yet the promise was kept. Thanks, HuronBob. Powerful stuff.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:03 AM on April 17, 2014

Beautiful. And for once, it's wonderful to read the comments at the end of that article.

By coincidence, I watched "Amour" by Haneke, just a few hours ago. Loved the movie, and found both the acting and direction amazing. And now I'm thinking that it might have been even more amazing, had it been about a gay couple.
posted by VikingSword at 5:07 AM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think a lot about couples like this, in states that simply refuse to recognize them. Florida, of course, is the state where Janice Langbehn and her children were kept from the bedside of her dying spouse, Lisa Pond, which led to President Obama's Executive Order a few years ago.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 5:09 AM on April 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'll never understand this. Who could be the person telling anyone they can't be with a dying loved one, no matter what the relationship is, and not hate themselves in the morning.
posted by Silentgoldfish at 5:55 AM on April 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

My partner is thirty years older than me. Our relationship is incredibly queer. We are a cis-woman and a cis-man and we are so fucking lucky that our marriage this July will protect us. I am so angry that people who happen to be same sex spouses do not always get the same protection in the US and I am glad that gay marriage has been legalised here in the UK.
posted by Mistress at 5:57 AM on April 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

About that Green Folder:

Absolutely critical for any couple in a committed relationship but not legally married, regardless of the genders of the people involved. I had a woman come into my office* the other day about some random consumer protection issue and I learned that she wasn't actually married to her "husband". He was the father of her children. They had lived together for twenty-five years. They own multiple properties jointly. And they're not legally married. They don't have wills, and they don't have powers of attorney (health care or financial).

This is a disaster waiting to happen.

If he dies, it won't be her that gets to make health care decisions. It'll be his next-of-kin, presumably their children. She'll probably only be allowed to visit him in the hospital if he's conscious or one of their kids is there, as she's technically no relation. She'll retain whatever interest she currently possesses in their real estate, but the rest of the property will go to his kids via probate. If they have any joint bank or financial accounts, she should probably wind up keeping those, but that could be dicey. She won't be able to administer any of his business or financial affairs if he's incapacitated or dead. Any vehicles not titled in her name will be gone. Etc.

I tried to impress upon her the absolute necessity of taking care of these things as soon as possible--I think they're both in their late 60s--but I'm not sure I succeeded.

All of that to say that the legal issues discussed in the linked article are by no means limited to gay couples who cannot/do not get married. It's an increasingly common problem for couples of all compositions as the percentage of committed relationships that are married relationships goes down.

And the issue of gay marriage completely aside, this is a huge problem. Committed relationships are so integral to human society across all cultures that political systems really need some way to grant them legal recognition. This is not only for the purpose of conferring arguable positive benefits on committed relationships. The legal aspect of marriage isn't just about gaining current legal perks. It's also about creating a set of rules for dissolving committed relationships in an orderly way that comports with our intuitions about how intimate social relationships are ordered.

Committed relationships aren't contractual business relationships, and we don't want them to be. Committed relationships are not arms-length financial transactions, nor even primarily financial transactions at all, for that matter. Social understandings are not and probably shouldn't be reduced to writing. Humans are not machines. We are not governed by nor do we operate by the execution of code, programmed or legal. We operate on the fly, by the seat of our pants, listening to our gut as much as our head, which head is selective and malleable anyway. That's the kind of thing we are, and it's the only way we can fully relate to other people in a truly human way. We don't want to relate that way for impersonal business or political transactions, which is why people like me have a job, but we can't avoid relating that way interpersonally, especially in our most intimate relationships.

Yet we also need the line between committed and uncommitted social relationships to be bright. Otherwise we have two problems. First, we'd have fights about whether or not two people are "actually" married. Given the complexity of social relationships, that's a nightmare waiting to happen. There needs to be a distinct, objective way of determining whether two people are in a committed relationship recognized by the law. That's currently done by the issuance of marriage licenses. Second, we don't want people who are self-consciously engaging in a casual but ongoing relationship to suddenly find themselves legally connected in ways that neither of them wanted to be. This is related to the first, in that ambiguity is a problem here, but it's more directed at the couple's treatment by third parties, not the couple's internal relationship. So marriage, civil union, domestic partnership, whatever you want to call it, the polis has to be able to distinguish between committed and uncommitted relationships.

And for those of you wondering how someone could possibly exclude a loved one from a dying partner's deathbed. . . the objectivity I'm talking about here is exactly why people not getting married is a problem. I spend time in family business court. Shit gets deeply, unbelievably weird. Non-custodial parents show up to church and pull kids out of Sunday School without the custodial parent's permission. Exes show up at hospitals and worm their way into the system before anyone has a chance to stop them. Hospital staff have no way of telling whether anything you tell them is true other than the patient confirming it, and their experience tells them that weird stuff happens often enough that they're usually not going to risk it. Having that Green Folder is how you show them that you belong there if you don't have the objective legal relationship of marriage.

Legal professionals are actually starting to get concerned here. Doing divorces is messy enough. Dealing with the dissolution of relationships which are not legally recognized is a gigantic mess. None of the family law procedures apply, and someone almost always winds up getting screwed pretty badly. Custody issues are largely independent of the legal relationship of the parents--which is a real boon--but property division is a nightmare. No one's really sure what to do about it though.

*I'm a lawyer, for those who don't know that already.
posted by valkyryn at 6:04 AM on April 17, 2014 [30 favorites]

I know the rule is usually don't read the comments, but the comments so far are fine, and there's a nice one from the no-longer-estranged niece:
Elyse Schiffer Centonze · Speech Language Pathologist at Pasco County Schools
It is heartwarming that my Uncle Richard passed with such happiness. Since Chris had been in Uncle Richard's life, we reconnected after my Dad passed away (Richard's older brother). Uncle Richard represented my Dad and the Schiffer family at my daughter's Bat Mitzvah. My father would have been very proud that his little brother stood in for him and so happy to know that he enjoyed life to it's fullest with Chris. What a beautiful story!
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:05 AM on April 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

Oh, and for those worried about what to do if you and your partner can't get married for whatever reason: go talk to a lawyer. There are absolutely ways of getting around a lot of these issues with a combination of wills, powers of attorney, and health care directives. Can't help you with your tax status, and kids are still an issue, but it is definitely possible to cobble together some kind of legal framework for your relationship that at least approximates the marriage state.
posted by valkyryn at 6:06 AM on April 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

I read this and realize just how lucky I live in a state where I can marry my partner, to have a family who has accepted me and my being gay (not despite, but possibly even partially because of being gay) and who have always welcomed the people I've loved into our clan. What a devastating story, but a hopeful one. I didn't expect to cry this morning.
posted by xingcat at 6:22 AM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

The most powerful part of this, for me, was the love story. It's not a gay love story, it's a moving story about love, loyalty, commitment. I want to share it with anybody who doesn't get why gay marriage, and equal rights are just the right thing to do, and I want to share it with anybody who, like me, is feeling jaded and cynical about love.
posted by theora55 at 6:53 AM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thanks for sharing this. So touching.... and now the lump in my throat won't go away...
posted by anad487 at 7:00 AM on April 17, 2014

This was wonderful. Thanks so much for posting it.
posted by zarq at 7:44 AM on April 17, 2014

Jesus that was hard to read. My partner and I have been together just over 11 years, like Richard and Chris, and we live in South Carolina with similar laws to Florida although we are much younger. This finally sparked me to get in touch with a lawyer friend to get a Green Folder as soon as possible.
posted by This Guy at 8:03 AM on April 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

valkyryn - they don't have common-law marriage where you are?

Anyway, I don't know if this will change that many minds because there's a small subset of ideological (and illogical) people who see marriage solely as a religious ceremony and are (perhaps willfully) ignorant of the significant legal implications of marriage.

But I wish it would change their minds.
posted by GuyZero at 8:16 AM on April 17, 2014

Common law marriage is only a thing in about nine states, and it's been on the decline (there used to be more states that recognized it and they've done away with it). Apparently, Iowa and Rhode Island allow for same-sex common law marriages, which is interesting.

New Hampshire has an interesting statute where they will recognize common law marriages but only posthumously, i.e. one of the people in the marriage has to be dead. So it affects probate but not medical decisionmaking, etc. While I understand the reasons that might have led them to do that, it does seem like a bit of a high bar for recognition.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:33 AM on April 17, 2014

There are absolutely ways of getting around a lot of these issues with a combination of wills, powers of attorney, and health care directives. Can't help you with your tax status, and kids are still an issue, but it is definitely possible to cobble together some kind of legal framework for your relationship that at least approximates the marriage state.

The thing is, there are at least a few states with anti-same-sex-marriage laws on the books (Virginia is definitely one) that forbid the recognition of anything that even seems like it's trying to look like "marriage." So, if you have POAs and all that good stuff and you live somewhere like Virginia and one of you ends up in the hospital, not only might the medical staff be allowed to not follow your directives, they might be prohibited by law from doing so.

And even in states where there have been domestic partner laws on the books, people might be assholes because they can be. A few years ago there was a horrifying case here in California (Sonoma county, I think) of a nursing home that just totally ignored the legally written wishes of two gay men. There was an fpp about it, which I'll try to find because I'm probably remembering some things wrong.
posted by rtha at 8:35 AM on April 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

This really made me tear up. So moving and made harder by the legal challenges. It's hard enough to lose someone you love without worrying about being able to make decisions and have access to them. I am acutely aware of my cis privilege here. Beautiful story though - thanks Huron Bob!
posted by leslies at 8:46 AM on April 17, 2014

Here's the thread I was thinking of.
posted by rtha at 8:51 AM on April 17, 2014

valkyryn - they don't have common-law marriage where you are?

Nope. Most states have outlawed it, and even the ones that haven't have mostly put restrictions on it.

And even in states where there have been domestic partner laws on the books, people might be assholes because they can be.

I think this is a bigger problem than the laws you mention. Virginia's laws in particular are being challenged, but given their AG's interpretation I don't think enforcement is going to be as much of a problem as asshole hospital staff.

But asshole hospital staff can be found everywhere, sometimes even with legal next-of-kin, so that's hardly a unique problem. Getting a nurse or whatever to do something he's not used to doing, even if it's perfectly legal, can be a real challenge. People are used to doing things they way they're used to doing them, and any deviation from that can often produce pushback, even where unjustified.

Example: my state has laws about how you go about getting a marriage annulled. It's pretty uncommon, so there's not a lot of case-law on point. A family law attorney with thirty years of experience may not have done more than a handful. Well, the neighboring county has adopted procedures for annulment which seem to entirely fly in the face of what the statute and official procedural rules say. But you can't really tell them that, because gosh-darn-it, that's how they've always done it and that's how they're going to do it.

I mean, heck, a close family friend experienced enormous pushback from a hospital administrator about switching off life support for a terminally ill relative, because the administrator disagreed with the decision. The family eventually got its way, but it took some real doing.

Having your paperwork in order gives you a much better shot of avoiding situations like this--but even in situations where you shouldn't need paperwork, a health care provider (or anyone else, for that matter) who puts on their pointy-headed-bureaucrat hat can complicate things really quickly.
posted by valkyryn at 9:12 AM on April 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

“When we first got to the ER, [the medical staff] paid 100 percent attention to Richard and didn’t really acknowledge my presence,” said Chris, noting a difference in how personnel sometimes approach two men arriving together, as opposed to a man and a woman.

“When I tried to speak up, and give them more of the full story about what was happening, they said, ‘Who are you?’ ”

A few hours later when Richard required more tests, it happened again. “The technician asked me what I was doing there,” Chris said.

Fuck. Just, fuck.

Those hospital personnel should be ashamed of themselves and of their institution.
posted by Danf at 9:17 AM on April 17, 2014 [6 favorites]

I may have shared this story before.

I'm gay and live in a state where I'm not allowed to marry. A few years ago my partner was in a bad traffic accident near our house. I was on the scene in minutes but when they took him away in an ambulance I couldn't directly follow. I first had to drive back home and rummage through the closet for our legal paperwork so that I could be with him in his confused, concussed state.

Thanks, voters, for writing this bit of discrimination into the state constitution.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 10:32 AM on April 17, 2014

Lawyers argue positions on behalf of their clients, not themselves. The fact that we do so does not necessarily imply anything about our personal beliefs.

Example: I am personally opposed to gay marriage but don't really care if it becomes legal, because I think that's the correct legal result. Nor would I have any problem arguing that position if required to do so.
posted by valkyryn at 2:23 PM on April 17, 2014

I know. It's just amusing.

And sometimes, lawyers do actually argue on behalf of their clients and they believe in the argument they're making. I don't know how much of that is the case with this guy or not - though he was named "Republican lawyer of the year," and he and his daughter "disagreed about Cooper’s view that states had reason to enshrine the traditional definition of marriage in their constitutions and withhold the right from same-sex couples," and he says that his views on the subject have evolved. So his personal beliefs on this matter seem closer to that of the clients he was arguing on behalf of than not.
posted by rtha at 2:32 PM on April 17, 2014

Danf, at least it's not all bad:

Most of Richard’s regular doctors respected the couple’s relationship. At South Florida Radiation Oncology in Coconut Creek, radiation therapist Henry Diaz made a point of introducing himself to Chris when Richard started treatment there in mid-October.

I was pleased to read that and see the picture placed above it.
posted by dubitable at 6:41 AM on April 18, 2014

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