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July 23, 2015

For better or for worse? LGBT seniors may lose benefits if they marry

Sun Sentinel
By Diane C. Lade
Who could blame senior gay and lesbian couples, who may have waited a lifetime to say "I do," for wanting to rush to the altar.

South Florida retirement experts, however, say those love birds need to do a reality check before buying the rings. That's because deciding to wed brings pitfalls as well as benefits, particularly for older adults.

Having a spouse changes an individual's legal status, regardless if the couple is gay or straight. Inheritance rights, next of kin designation, tax status, and eligibility for benefits such as disability payments and government subsidized nursing home care can be affected.

"We want them to be aware of practical issues," said Stephanie Schneider, a Plantation elder-law attorney who has many gay and lesbian clients.

She is among the four legal and financial professionals participating in "I Do," a July 29 presentation and question-and-answer session at The Pride Center in Wilton Manors. It will feature important information for potential LGBT newlyweds about pension, healthcare and Social Security issues critical to seniors.

The seminar also will look at topics concerning younger couples, such as divorce and child adoption.

Other South Florida advocacy organizations, in the wake of last month's U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding marriage equality, are putting together resources and workshops to help seniors explore whether legal marriage is for them and how to protect their retirement.The Compass Gay & Lesbian Community Center of Lake Worth and the Palm Beaches is planning a session on Social Security featuring U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, for early September, said center manager Julie Seaver.

The pros and cons for legal marriage will vary from couple to couple, depending on their assets, savings, health history and other factors, said Scott Solkoff, an elder-law attorney in Delray Beach who has done estate planning for gay and lesbian clients.

For example, Medicaid, the only government program that pays for nursing home care, covers people with limited resources. But the program must consider the assets and incomes of both legally married spouses when determining eligibility – meaning a high-earning partner might disqualify the one with less, Solkoff said.

Other potential downsides to matrimony: a disabled senior could lose Supplemental Security Income payments if a marriage increases his or her income. Increased income post-marriage also could disqualify a couple from housing subsidies, experts say.

In some cases, opting for a non-legal commitment ceremony is a better choice, Solkoff said.

On the upside, having federally recognized marriage rights now allows older LGBT couples to enjoy the same spousal benefits that straight couples are entitled to, said Solkoff. Those include being able to draw on their deceased spouse's Social Security earnings if greater than their own, qualifying for spousal veteran's benefits like a burial plot and assistance with care expenses, and inheritence rights to property.

Anthony Timiraos, CEO/president of Our Fund, said the marriage ruling has created a new, uncharted world even for couples who have been together for decades. "It's a matter of 'Be careful what you ask for.' Now [LGBT people] have all the issues involving marriage that straight people do," said Timiraos.

Our Fund, a Wilton Manors-based nonprofit foundation that promotes programs benefiting the LGBT community, is planning a session for LGBT seniors in the fall that will include marriage updates, Timiraos said.

He said it will be important that newlyweds hire reliable professionals familiar with legal changes that came with marriage equality.

Our Fund is working with other LGBT advocacy groups to create resource directories, Timiraos said, lisiting healthcare, financial and other professionals who have had additional training in LGBT issues or a strong track record in the community.

LGBT advocates especially are concerned about senior couples for several reasons, said Michael Adams, executive director of SAGE USA, a national non-profit serving LGBT elders. One is that making financial mistakes is more devastating for any older person, he said, as they are no longer working.

Seniors also depend more than young adults on things like Social Security, work pensions and veteran's benefits, Adams said. '

That's the reason SAGE created "Talk Before You Walk" (down the aisle, that is). The free educational website gives tips on how rights and benefits can change, for better and for worse, for seniors over age 65 as well as those who are younger.

For more information: talkbeforeyouwalk.org.

While the LGBT community is at "an amazing moment of celebration" following the marriage equality ruling, "our concern is that people will make a decision based on that excitement instead of taking a step back and considering the implications," Adams said.

dlade@sunsentinel.com or 954-356-4295

Read the original article online here.

Media Inquiries

Christina DaCosta
Assistant Director of Communications
917-553-3328
cdacosta@sageusa.org

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