Legal assistance for the ‘Modern Military Family’

ARNOLD AIR FORCE BASE, TENN. -- In 2007 Edith Windsor married her domestic partner, Thea Spyer, in Ontario, Canada. The couple resided in New York until 2009 when Spyer passed away and left her entire estate (to include $300K in estate taxes) to Windsor. Although Windsor applied for the federal estate tax exemption for surviv¬ing spouses, her application was denied as the federal De-fense of Marriage Act (DOMA) defined "marriage" and "spouse" as excluding same-sex partners.

Now imagine Spyer is really Lt. Col. Spyer. And Windsor walks into the Air Force Legal Assistance Office after receiving a bill for $300K in estate taxes. Oh, and by the way, Windsor also has questions about life insurance proceeds for her and her daughter. Is Windsor or her daughter entitled to legal assistance? Does it matter that Spyer and Windsor married in Ontario? What if they married in California, or Tennessee, or not at all?

On Feb. 11, the Defense Secretary signed a policy memo extending certain benefits to same-sex domestic partners of military members. There are currently 20 educational, survivor, and travel and transportation benefits that are available by designation of the service member. Selecting a Service Members' Group Life Insurance (SGLI) beneficiary is one example of member-designated benefit. Anyone designated by the service member as a beneficiary, in writing, would be eligible to receive SGLI payments.

On Aug. 13, the Department of Defense reviewed the current list of benefits and directed the extension of all benefits, beyond member-designated benefits, to same-sex domestic partners, and where applicable, children of same-sex domestic partners. Eligibility for these benefits, however, requires the service member to provide a valid marriage certificate from a jurisdiction that recognizes same-sex marriages.

What benefits are covered? The policy is to treat all military personnel equally and to recognize all marriages that are valid in the place of celebration. As a result, the policy extends a variety of services, entitlements, and benefits, to include legal assistance, to married, same-sex partners, and their dependents. Benefits include member-designated benefits, such as SGLI designation, and non-member-designated benefits, such as medical or dental benefits.

How soon will the changes take effect? Implementation of these benefits will require substantial policy revision, training, and possibly even technical upgrades. Some growing pains are to be expected. However, it is the Secretary's expectation that such benefits will be made available to same-sex domestic partners "as expeditiously as possible."

If you have any questions, contact the Arnold Air Force Base (AFB) Legal Office at (931) 454-7814.