There was a time, in the 1990s, when “boy bands” walked tall in the musical world. New stars with names like “BoyzIIMen” and “Backstreet Boys” and “*NSYNC” were everywhere to be seen, and positioned prominently within this firmament of stars was an Irish band, “Boyzone”.
One of the five members of Boyzone’s most famous lineup, Stephen Gately, died over the weekend in Mallorca, aged 33, much to the dismay of the group’s fans and friends.
Because Gately came out at the height of his career, and at considerable risk to his (and the group’s) “brand” prospects, the LBGT community is experiencing considerable dismay over the loss as well.
Today’s story, however, isn’t about any of that.
Instead, we’ll consider what’s likely to happen to Gately’s estate.
The point of the exercise? With this being one of the most prominent deaths of a gay celebrity to occur since civil commitment came to pass, and with Mr. Gately being legally committed to husband Andrew Cowles at the time of his death, it seems like a good time to examine how the law responds to these situations in the UK-and how it could work in the United States.
To get things started, a quick acknowledgement: I was unaware of Stephen Gately’s death until I saw Prince Gomolvilas’ story at the Bilerico Project (“daily experiments in LBGTQ”) describing the event. His story covers topics we won’t be covering here; I would encourage you to stop by and have a look. (Full disclosure: I’m also a continuing contributor to the Bilerico Project site.)
For those completely unaware of Boyzone’s body of work, you might wish to start with the song for which they are probably the most famous, “No Matter What“, an Andrew Lloyd Weber composition.
“You’re ‘committed’? How’s that work, exactly?”
The preliminaries out of the way, let’s talk law:
In the UK, same-sex civil commitments are already enshrined in national law and the process is fairly simple. Before either a marriage or a civil commitment can take place, advance notice must be given by both parties, in person, at the register office (analogous to a city or county clerk’s office) where the couple resides.
The notice will be displayed for fifteen days, after which the grant of authority for the union can be issued by a minister or some comparable official at the wedding. (If you’re to be married in a Church of England or Church in Wales facility this requirement is waived.)
If one of the partners dies, UK law treats marriages and civil commitments identically. I won’t go into every nuance of the law here, but basically, it works like this:
There is an inheritance tax, and if you died this year it would be triggered if you were passing an estate larger than £325,000 (at today’s exchange rates, that’s about $514,000). You would be taxed 40% for anything over that threshold, and the amount you can pass without paying the tax goes up over time. (Gifts above £3000 per year that you gave in the past seven years are considered part of the estate, except gifts given to spouses and for other purposes, such as charitable giving.) Under certain circumstances it is possible to double the amount that can be passed, tax-free, to the next generation or to unrelated individuals.
The tax normally does not apply at all, regardless of the size of the estate, if the assets are passing from one spouse to another or to charity.
Love, American Style
So how do we contrast all this to the American experience?
Right off the bat, in the UK the law applies nationwide, unlike in the US, where states like Virginia have introduced bills that, if enacted, would void any same-sex civil unions granted by any other state, and relatives try to use the courts to prevent enforcement of arrangements entered into by same-sex partners.
This means Mr. Cowles can at least sleep under his own roof without fear that a lawsuit will emerge forcing him to either vacate his home or mount a costly legal defense to keep it-or worse yet, to have to mount a costly defense…and lose his home in the process, something that happens in the US on a regular basis.
Additionally, should Mr. Gately have chosen to direct his assets to Mr. Cowles, that decision will likely be carried out; and there would be no special legal hoops (other than the civil commitment process) through which anyone would have to jump to make such a decision carry the force of law.
It is also highly likely that Mr. Cowles will be given full authority to make any decisions about funeral arrangements that are required, and that he won’t have to fight the relatives for the physical custody of the body of his deceased partner.
There are two other interesting contrasts of which you should be aware: the divorce rate in England and Wales today, nearly 4 years after gay weddings first began in England and Wales, is at a 26 year low, and there is evidence to suggest that allowing same-sex marriages actually leads to those who marry living longer lives than those who want to marry today, but can’t.
And that’s where we’re going to end this for today: in the UK, a family like Stephen Gately’s and Andrew Cowles’ may suffer from an unexpected tragedy, but the law doesn’t conspire to make a bad situation a thousand times worse for the surviving member of the same-sex couple-unlike in the US.
Disgruntled relatives aren’t able to challenge the union, the spouse can be confident that the decisions they make will be protected in law, and no one’s being thrown out into the street solely because of the nature of their marriage.
Oh, and I almost forgot the math part of the deal: same-sex unions not only help the spouses live longer, it’s apparently helping to reduce the UK divorce rate for all couples at the same time.
And if you add all that up, aren’t we really saying that legalizing same-sex marriages equals nothing less than legalizing Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness?
So the next time someone claims gay marriage would somehow be threatening to the Nation…ask them: “why do you hate America, the Founding Fathers, the Constitution-and heterosexual marriages?”
Then stand back and let the stammering begin.