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Marvin and Sally Dahl share a home with Margaret Purcell and Mary Henry. Living together, the two couples have learned how planning for aging is different for gay and straight couples. Photo by Carolyn Beeler.

Marvin and Sally Dahl share a home with Margaret Purcell and Mary Henry. Living together, the two couples have learned how planning for aging is different for gay and straight couples. Photo by Carolyn Beeler.


Gay Couples Need To Plan Differently For Aging

Carolyn Beeler

Planning for growing old is complicated for everyone. Drawing up wills, buying insurance and thinking about long–term care options can be overwhelming. But for gay couples, who aren't legally recognized as couples at the federal level, more layers of planning are required.


Margaret Purcell and Mary Henry carry their power–of–attorney papers neatly folded up in their wallets.

Purcell and Henry: "It was a two page document, we reduced it and put it side by side on one page, so one side of it is mine, this is mine, and that one's Margaret's, on the same piece of paper, and you see mine's wearing to pieces and some so I need to make a new one this year."

Mary says they never leave home without them.

Henry: "If you are going with an ambulance with your partner who is dying, you don't think about, oh, I left that back there and I need it."

The papers say they're allowed to make medical decisions for each other.

When a married couple walks into a hospital, they can assume their relationship will be recognized and respected. But Margaret and Mary are gay, so it takes a little more planning to make sure they're not barred from each other's hospital rooms.

Beeler: "What does having that little piece of paper mean to you then?"

Mary: "Well it's the nearest thing to security we've got. It really is, and it's not a secure feeling."

Margaret and Mary have also made sure their wills are in place, so their assets will pass to each other and not their legal next of kin. There are lots of other things the couple has had to plan for that straight couples don't. Things many older gay couples aren't even aware are different for them.

Take Medicaid, for example.

You need to be poor enough to qualify for Medicaid. But if you're married, there are protections in place to make sure your spouse isn't impoverished if you need care. Lisa Brodoff is a law professor and an expert in elder law at Seattle University. She explains how the state determines if a married couple is eligible for Medicaid.

Brodoff: "The state puts all of their assets into a pot, whether it's held jointly or separately, and all of that counts towards determining Medicaid eligibility, but for the married couple, the state gives to the non–Medicaid spouse a very high amount of assets."

Here's what happens: Medicaid looks at all of your assets to see if you qualify for care. If you have more than a certain amount, you have to spend it before Medicaid will kick in. That certain amount for a married couple is up to $110,000. But there are also assets that are protected, that don't count toward that amount. For a married couple, those include a house, up to any value. They also include a large chunk of the income of the person who needs the care.

Brodoff: "That's not true for the lesbian or gay couple. They consider that person applying for Medicaid to be single, and they're only allowed to have $2,000."

Because it's a federal program, Medicaid cannot, by law, recognize gay couples as couples.

Say Mary had to enter a nursing home, and had to rely on Medicaid.

All of her and Margaret's joint assets over that $2,000 would have to be spent before she would qualify for care. Their house would only be protected if it were worth less than a certain amount. And none of Mary's income would be exempt — it would all need to be spent on her care. That's a huge problem in couples where the partner needing care has the higher income, as is the case with Margaret and Mary.

Here's Margaret.

Purcell: "All I would get to keep would be what I was getting. There would be no protection of the part of her income that we relied on to make a house payment."

Beeler: "Does that worry you guys at all?

Purcell: "Oh yes."

Henry: "Definitely. At our age, anything could happen, you know. "

Mary is 70. She had a cancer scare last year. She thinks she's out of the woods, but as she says, you never know.

Henry: "If that became a situation that my assets wouldn't cover then they would take everything that we had in common and she would be left with nothing."

Beeler: "How does that make you feel?"

Henry: "Mad. Mad, for one thing."

Mary was married for years before she came out. She says she feels way less secure now than she did then.

Henry: "Having been in a heterosexual relationship and seeing what is available there and to see that none of it is offered to same–sex partners, it is just a very bad feeling."

Margaret and Mary went back and checked their records, and they discovered that their long–term care insurance should prevent them from needing Medicaid.

Purcell: "As long as we continue to pay our premiums, we won't be in that situation."

Henry: "We hope."

Purcell: "Yes, we hope."

They bought that insurance to prevent something like this from happening. But even with the precautions Margaret and Mary have taken, they still worry about growing old in a country that doesn't legally recognize their relationship.

Attorney Lisa Brodoff says it's with good reason.

Brodoff: "As a gay and lesbian couple you start at a much lower level of protection. And even with good planning you never get to the same level of automatic protection that a married couple has."

Margaret and Mary are afraid a homophobic bureaucrat or some loophole will keep them from visiting each other in the hospital or will strip them of their property. They're all things couples who can get married don't have to worry about.

Purcell: "They don't have to think about this at all. And for us it's something that's constantly there."

Mary: "It's the 600–pound gorilla in the room all the time. It's just always there."

Margaret and Mary have done everything they know of to prepare for old age. They just hope that's good enough.

For KUOW News, I'm Carolyn Beeler.

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