by Jennifer Bearden[i]
Growing up I always envisioned my dream wedding. I spent many years as a young girl dreaming of my wedding dress, the ceremony, the reception, etc. I never imagined the reality of my wedding involving a whirlwind two-day trip to Washington, D.C., a sudden snow storm, or having such an informal ceremony. My wife, Rhonda, and I just celebrated our 14th anniversary; yet, we only married 11 months ago. It is not that we did not want to be legally married. Rhonda and I have been married in every way for over twelve years. We own property and vehicles together. We have joint bank accounts and joint credit cards. Everything we own is joint property. Yet, we never traveled to another state to legally wed.
The reason we waited so long to get married is because Arkansas does not permit or recognize gay marriage. Even if we traveled to another state to be married, it would have made no legal difference once we returned to Arkansas. We would have been married long ago if we lived in a state that recognized our union. Instead, we had to take precautions to protect ourselves and our relationship. Imagine this horrible scenario: Your spouse has a terrible accident and you rush to the emergency room to be told only family is allowed to go back with them or see them. You and your spouse have been together for five years, ten years, even fifty years, and it would not matter. Your relationship is not legally recognized; therefore, the hospital refuses to recognize your relationship as well. Even if you are the very person who should be making medical decisions for your partner, you could be prevented from doing just that simply because your state does not recognize your union. Let us take that scenario one horrifying step further. Imagine your partner dies. What happens to the life you have built together or all the things you accumulated together? Your partner’s family, blinded by grief, comes in and demands all of your partner’s belongings and property. You are then stuck in a legal battle trying to keep the things you purchased with your partner. Because Arkansas does not recognize same-sex unions many couples have to resort to legal means in order to protect their interests and rights in times of emergencies.
As soon we bought our first house in 2002, Rhonda and I had wills drawn up to ensure there would be no doubt as to how our estates would be distributed in the event one of us died. We never doubted our family would try to take anything from our partners but you never know how people will react in the midst of grieving and loss. We also prepared Powers of Attorney to ensure we could make health and financial decisions for one another. One of my biggest fears was something happening to one of us and the other not being able to make the necessary decisions due to the fact Arkansas does not recognize our relationship. Instead, we had to go through the expense of drafting legal documents in order to be afforded the same rights a married couple receives just by being married. A couple legally wed in Arkansas does not have to worry about these types of issues. They know they are able to make life decisions and know they do not have to worry about the distribution of property and belongings they bought together. Rhonda and I were not afforded that right simply because of the marriages laws of the state we call home. Luckily, we have never had to use the Powers of Attorney. We have both had surgery as well as our fair share of unplanned medical emergencies but we have never encountered any problem with medical professionals trying to exclude the other one. If a challenge had been made it would have added needless stress to an already stressful time. But, the simple fact is we have been lucky.
Rhonda and I will celebrate our one year wedding anniversary on December 21, 2014. We knew it was time for us to get married once the federal government began to recognize same-sex marriages once the Defense of Marriage Act fell. Our trip to Washington, D.C. was a hurried affair. We had to plan our wedding around our work schedules and my exam schedule. There is a three day waiting period to get a marriage license in D.C. Our officiant was luckily able to get our license for us so we only had to show up. Our flight into D.C. was delayed more than an hour, our shuttle detoured through several Virginia suburbs, and we had to push our dinner reservations back to 11:00 p.m. Despite all of this, the purpose of the trip was fulfilled the next day. We were married by a wonderful woman who specialized in officiating gay marriages. She is in an interracial marriage and she loves performing gay marriage ceremonies because her marriage was once illegal too. We had to return home twelve hours earlier than originally planned because a snow storm was headed right for us and we were running the risk of being stranded in D.C. for several days. Our entire trip lasted less than thirty-six hours. However, we took home the thing we wanted the most – a marriage recognized by the federal government.
Rhonda and I were able to file a joint federal tax return this year. Unfortunately, filing single, individual returns for the state was a huge pain. We hope that in the near future we will be able to join other married Arkansas taxpayers and file jointly for state purposes. In the meantime we feel somewhat more protected because we know the federal government recognizes our marriage. We know that we will get the same federal benefits as all married couples with a few big exceptions like Social Security benefits. However, we know we made the right choice for us. We still have precautions in place to ensure the distributions of our estate are honored if one of us were to die. We also still need Powers of Attorney for healthcare and finances in place in case something was to happen to one of us. We hope that Arkansas’s gay marriage ban will fall soon and our marriage will be recognized by the state. Until then, we will take the rights afforded to us by the federal government, keep our precautionary plans in place, and keep fighting for equality in the state we love.
[i] Jennifer Bearden is a part-time 3L. She anticipates graduating in May, 2015. Originally from Memphis, TN, she currently resides in Saline County with her wife. She has worked in the legal field for many years and plans to practice in the areas of family law, probate law, and LGBT law.