Saturday, January 21, 2006

Partner's Death Ends Happy Life on Ranch

People who oppose gay marriage and gay civil unions need to think about the pain that they're causing. The gay marriage battle isn't about whether there will be gay couples; it's about whether gay couples that already exist and will exist in the future deserve equal protection under the law.

Partner's Death Ends Happy Life on Ranch

"Listen," the character Twist [in Brokeback Mountain] says to del Mar as part of a dream that goes unrealized. "I'm thinking, tell you what, if you and me had a little ranch together -- little cow and calf operation, your horses -- it'd be some sweet life."

That pretty much describes the life Beaumont had. He settled down with Earl Meadows and tended 50 head of cattle for a quarter-century on an Oklahoma ranch. "I was raised to be independent. I didn't really care what other people thought," Beaumont said.

In 1977, Beaumont was divorced and raising three sons after a dozen years in the Air Force when Meadows walked up to him near the Arkansas River.

"It was a pretty day -- January 15th, 65 degrees," Beaumont said. "He came up, we got to talkin' till 2 in the morning. I don't even remember what we said." But "I knew it was something special."

Beaumont moved to be with Meadows in his partner's hometown of Bristow, Okla., a place of 4,300 people. Together, they bought a ranch and raised Beaumont's three sons. The mortgage and most of the couple's possessions were put in Meadows' name.

During the day, Meadows worked as a comptroller for Black & Decker. He'd drop the boys at school on his way to work. At home, Beaumont took care of the ranch, feeding and tagging cattle, cooking and cleaning, and once built a barn.

"As far as I was concerned, I had two dads," said one of Beaumont's sons, now 33, who requested anonymity. He was 2 years old when Meadows joined the family.

"Dad helped with schoolwork and all the stuff around the house, taught me to ride horses and milk cows. Earl used to take me to the company picnics and Christmas parties. He bought me my first car."

Most of their friends, Beaumont said, were straight couples, women who worked at Black & Decker, "teachers and doctors and lawyers," and childhood friends of Meadows who often came to dinner at the ranch.

"People treated them fine," said Eunice Lawson, who runs a grocery store in Bristow.

But in 1999, Meadows had a stroke and Beaumont took care of him for a year until he died at age 56.

That's where the fantasy of a life together on the range collides with reality. After a quarter-century on the ranch he shared with his partner, Beaumont lost it all on a legal technicality in a state that doesn't recognize domestic partnerships.

Meadows' will, which left everything to Beaumont, was fought in court by a cousin of the deceased and was declared invalid by the Oklahoma Court of Appeals in 2003 because it was short one witness signature.

A judge ruled the rancher had to put the property, which was appraised at $100,000, on the market. The animals were sold. Beaumont had to move.

Because Meadows had no biological children or surviving parents, his estate was divided up among his heirs. When the ranch sells, the proceeds are to be divided among dozens of Meadows' cousins.

"They took the estate away from me," said Beaumont, who said he put about $200,000 of his own money into the ranch. "Everything that had Earl's name on it, they took. They took it all and didn't bat an eye."

Every state has common-law marriage rules that protect heterosexual couples. If someone dies without a will, or with a faulty one, his or her live-in partner is treated as the rightful inheritor.

But only seven states currently give gay couples protections -- such as inheritance rights and health benefits -- through marriage, civil unions and domestic partnerships. What's more, Oklahoma last year amended its state constitution to ensure that neither marriage nor any similar arrangement is extended to same-sex couples.


Today, there are roughly 90,000 gay couples living in small-town America, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, and more than 5,700 in Oklahoma.


(via metafilter)

11 comments:

Foilwoman said...

Not arguing with you here. But: if you want to make sure your partner gets property without any fuss, joint tenancy with right of survivorship is the way to go. The property doesn't even go to probate. It just becomes your partner when you die.

asher said...

Are you saying this tale of woe could have been avoided if these two geniuses had made a proper will? Had a man and woman lived together in NYS or any other state that doesn't recognize common law marriage and the same facts existed, the result would have been the same. I imagine the aggrieved party had a nice negligence suit against the attorney who drew up this will, assuming these wealthy ranch owners used an attorney. Or a suit against their financial adviser who had the bright idea of not putting the place in joint name.

Why do you have to load the scenario about these poor poor folks when the fault lies not in their being gay but in their being bad businessman and chosing a bad estate attorney?

Jewish Atheist said...

asher,

As the article states, and I bolded:

Every state has common-law marriage rules that protect heterosexual couples. If someone dies without a will, or with a faulty one, his or her live-in partner is treated as the rightful inheritor.

In other words, if they were straight, there would have been no problem even though the will was faulty.

David said...

JA...your logic, and point, is sound. Another sad story in the happiest place on earth.

Shlomo said...

Obviously, the greed of those cousins overcame the common decency that most of us other humans would apply to such events. Shameful. Absolutely shameful.

Once again I have to check the calendar to remind myself what century I'm actually living in. It appears to be getting 'dark' all over again.

Stacey said...

This gives me chills up my spine. What happened was abysmally wrong.

I saw Brokeback Mountain yesterday. Cannot get it out of my mind. It is a moving, beautiful movie. It was heartbreaking.

Laura said...

There are hundreds of rights that are awarded to married and common law marriage couples that are automatic under the law. I, for instance, don't have to draw up attorney's papers saying I have the right to make medical decisions on my husband's behalf. I have the automatic right to visit him in the hospital if he should be serious ill. I am his automatic next of kin - uncontestable unless special circumstances arise.

Why can't people realize that gay couples who seek to get married aren't interested in the supposed financial benefits that gay marriage opponents often cite - but the real, concrete rights that allow them to live as a real couple under the law. This seriously should be a non-issue.

I've always maintained that since the main reason people oppose gay marriage is religious - i.e. it's against the laws written in the bible - then why does our country allow non-Christians/Jews/Muslims to be married in legally recongnized unions? Because marriage in this country is not tied to religion, that's why.

Random said...

JA,

"As the article states,"

Incorrectly, as it turns out. Only twelve US jurisdictions (11 states plus DC) have common law marriage - granted, Oklahoma is one of them. This sort of thing is easily checkable (wikipedia did it for me, but it's not the only place you can find this sort of stuff), which makes me wonder what else the journalist got wrong.


"In other words, if they were straight, there would have been no problem even though the will was faulty."

Only if they'd met the criteria for common-law marriage, which despite common belief are rather more rigorous than simply living together. In Oklahoma (as the relevant state here) they are:

(1) "an actual and mutual agreement between the spouses to be husband and wife;"

(2) "a permanent relationship;"

(3) "an exclusive relationship, proved by cohabitation as man and wife;" and

(4) "the parties to the marriage must hold themselves out publicly as husband and wife."

See Estate of Stinchcomb v. Stinchcomb, 674 P.2d 26, 28-29 (Okla. 1983)
(from wikipedia again)

And all of them have to be met. Placing a gender neutral interpretation on the language above, it would seem that only (2) and possibly (3) are attested to by the story here. Incidentally, case law in Oklahoma regards things like the mortgage and other assets being entirely in the name of one partner as powerful evidence *against* the existence of a common law marriage. You could of course argue that they might have done things differently if they'd been aware of the possibility of common law marriage applying to them, but the fact is they didn't and didn't even take up those options that were available to them (like making sure the will was legally watertight, or joint tenancy). The law has to rule on the situation as it is, not as how we would wish it to be in an ideal world.

Or to put it another way, a straight couple in identical circumstances would probably have suffered exactly the same treatment. I'm afraid to say Asher is right - this isn't a story about gay marriage, it's a story about complacent partners and greedy relatives. I'd also add it's a story about how the law conflicts with justice, and that in our desire for justice we shouldn't read more into it than is there.

Shlomo said...

Random,

Disagree. It IS about gay unions. The presumption in Oklahoma, socially and legally, is that a domestic partnership, married or common law, consists only of a one man and one woman. The prevailing attitude certainly effects the judgment. Stinchcomb v. Stinchcomb didn't make any headlines outside of the legal journals.

This case should be seen as a 'shot across the bow' to any and all gay and lesbian couples across the country. They better start crossing their 'T's and dotting those 'I's, because any relative with a gripe about his or her lifestyle can now come forward and claim precedent.

The law in Oklahoma, as you pointed out, says 'man and woman' repeatedly. These guys had no chance in court.

Kol Tuv

Jewish Atheist said...

Random,

You may be right. I'm not a lawyer and I took the journalist's word for it about common law marriage. Regardless, there are hundreds of thousands of gay couples who would get legally married if they could which would prevent thousands of similar tragedies.

Foilwoman said...

I think it's the ability to get married that makes the difference. If you are a heterosexual couple living together and you don't meet the criteria for common law marriage in your state (or do meet the criteria and can't prove it in court, or live in one of the many* states where common law marriage isn't recognized), you had the choice to marry but didn't. Proving common law marriage isn't like proving marriage. Marriage, you wave your marriage license in front of whoever, and they concede, oopsy a doopsy, you are married and entitled to all the rights, responsibilities, and privileges thereto. Common-law marriage has to be proved in court, and thus involved lots of lawyers' fees, etc. Gay people simply don't have that option, and are now, in many states and under federal law forbidden from treating their partners as spouses and can't get tax benefits, intestate inheritance rights, or anything similar. A straight couple who don't marry are foolish if they think their mutual interests are protected (regarding inheritance, child custody, etc.) without lots of legal agreements. While intestate inheritance is a pain, and probably doesn't divide things the way individuals would have chosen, gays are out of the loop forever on that one, absent a change in the law.

They are forced to spend more on legal services, etc. if they want any protections whatsoever. And under the ironically named Defense of Marriage Act (pah!), the feds won't give them any breaks whatsoever.

So this case is an example of what can go wrong if you don't plan right, and how badly it can turn out if the legal protections available to other people aren't available to you. Needless to say, the will being found invalid was a ministerial error on the attorney's part. The couple themselves probably thought they had taken care of things.

Of course, life isn't fair. That doesn't mean we have to make it more so.


*Not all, probably not even a majority, of states recognize common law marriage. See http://www.unmarried.org/common.html.