A picture is worth a thousand words.
Steve and I were soul mates for over 33 years until he took his own life on March 15, 2015. I leave it to the reader to look at Steve’s headstone photo to see if they think anything is missing.
Steve and I lived together for over 25 years, however, there is no such thing as common law marriage in my state that would give me the spousal rights most would think should have naturally fallen to me.
It has taken me over a year to write this blog as I was so angry and bitter over things that transpired after Steve had passed that I didn’t want to further fuel the flames of bad feelings that are not unusual in the case of a sudden death or suicide of a loved one.
Now, although I write this with sadness since I know what happened was not what Steve would have wanted, I write this to educate with the hopes it will inspire conversations between people who are committed to each other, so much so, that they have already drawn up the legal documents such as wills, powers of attorney and healthcare proxies but have chosen for whatever reason not to marry (or cannot marry). Steve and I did all these things thinking we would be protected. We also verbally discussed some of the details of our funerals and how we wanted our remains to be handled. However, there are situations where the law will not recognize ‘committed partners’ and decision making with respect to the deceased will fall to ‘next of kin’, which may or may not be what the partners had verbally discussed.
Steve had always said, we love each other so much and are so devoted to each other, why do we need a piece of paper (marriage certificate) to confirm that? Steve always referred to me as his wife when introducing me to new acquaintances and we were “married” in every sense of the word except we did not have a legal certificate of marriage. This is a huge exception when the one you loves dies. Society (including friends and family) tend to perceive the relationship differently and not really committed regardless of how many years the couple lived together. It has been my experience that, in certain instances, my relationship with Steve was marginalized by some since we were not married. It was extremely painful to feel that I was treated as though Steve and I had only been dating for a few weeks.
As sole beneficiary and executor of Steve’s will, one would have thought there should have been no question as to who should be making certain choices. However, since I was not legally ‘next of kin’, I had no power to make many decisions in the months following Steve’s death since the will had to go through probate. Even though the will was not contested, because of the bureaucracy and backlog of the courts, it was several months before I received my testamentary papers that made me officially in control of all things related to Steve.
In those months that followed Steve’s death and before I was the official executor of Steve’s estate, I had no legal power to make some critical decisions that could not wait until the courts finished their work. Below are just a few of the things that come to mind that should be discussion points (as difficult as it is to have these kinds of conversations) between unmarried couples that are devoted to each other:
1. Who writes and/or has final approval for the obituary?
2. Should there be a wake and if so, what should the deceased be wearing, who should be invited, where should it be held, should it be open or closed casket?
3. What should be inscribed on the headstone?
4. Should there be a religious ceremony; who should officiate, where should it be, who should be invited?
5. How/who handles the public notification of death?
Many of the above items can be addressed in a Letter of Instruction (LOI) which Steve and I did not have. My understanding is that an LOI is not legally binding in my state, however, at least it would have documented our wishes when one of us died. I wish I had known about this.
When I was writing Steve’s memoir, I was told by the publishing company since I did not have testamentary papers, I would need approval from ‘next of kin’ to use his image in the book. Not being Steve’s surviving spouse prohibited me from getting original death certificates myself from the state where Steve died until I had my testamentary papers. One final situation to consider is the entitlement of a surviving spouse to Social Security benefits of the deceased. Since Steve and I were not married when he died, I have no rights to collect any of what would have been his benefits.
As one can imagine, while trying to sort through the horrific grief after Steve’s suicide, not being a part of many key decisions was very painful for me. I don’t know if things would have been handled differently if I was Steve’s wife, but I do know, in the eyes of the law, I would have had much more power.
My advice to any couples, whether a man and a woman, 2 men or 2 women, if you are committed enough to each other to draw up wills and other legal documents, you may be better off getting married if you can legally do so. Marriage affords so many tangible and intangible benefits, especially when one of the partners dies. Of course, every country/state has different laws so it is best to consult with an estate attorney and have a heart to heart discussion with your partner concerning what your wishes are when you pass. The collateral damage resulting from sudden death of a loved one is difficult enough without having to deal with all the other bad feelings that may result because you were ‘not the spouse’.