Senate panel OKs partner proposal derided by critics as ‘marriage light’

(Photo/Danny Hammontree, Flickr)

(Photo/Danny Hammontree, Flickr)

A bill designed to make it easier for gay and lesbian couples and other unmarried adults to establish sweeping legal rights for each other — including inheritance, the ability to make medical decisions and hospital visitation rights — moved a step closer to law Monday on a party-line vote in a state Senate committee over the objections of a Republican lawmaker who called the proposal “marriage light.”

“This one-stop shopping, convenient bundle of things on one piece of paper is going to provide access to protections people currently aren’t taking advantage of,” said attorney Pat Steadman, a board member of the gay rights advocacy group Equal Rights Colorado, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday.

House Bill 1260 allows any two unmarried adults to fill out a form and file it with their county clerk, bypassing a patchwork of contracts, wills and powers of attorney they would otherwise have to execute with a lawyer’s help. In addition, the bill adds a handful of rights — such as the ability to file a wrongful death lawsuit on a partner’s behalf — which cannot currently be granted contractually under Colorado law.

The proposal lets unmarried couples protect each other “in very basic life and death situations,” Sen. Jennifer Veiga, a Denver Democrat and the bill’s sponsor, said before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“Any unmarried adult in the state of Colorado could take advantage of this,” Veiga said, brushing aside protests from the panel’s Republicans that the bill is an attempt to resurrect a domestic partnership proposal shot down by state voters in 2006. Senior citizens “who for whatever reason chose not to remarry late in life” would be among the bill’s targets, Veiga said.

Former state lawmaker Wayne Knox, a Denver Democrat who set the record as the longest-serving state representative in Colorado history, endorsed the bill on behalf of the Colorado Senior Lobby. “As life goes on, death occurs,” he told the panel. “There are a whole lot of people out there that don’t have wills.”

Not all seniors, it turned out. “We have been fortunate enough to be able to afford to draw up a will,” said self-described “old lesbian” Kathy Glass, who showed up at the committee hearing with Carman Lawler, her partner of more than 30 years, to support the bill. “And we have also been negligent enough not to take our mothers out of our will.”

Glass recounted events she said turned her and Lawler into activists. Several years ago, Glass said, she faced a medical emergency while under anesthesia but hospital staff ignored her partner. “We had a tremendous amount of difficulty sorting that out over the next couple of days,” she said. “It never occurred to us we needed documentation for these things.”

“It doesn’t matter if you live together, it doesn’t matter if you sleep together, it doesn’t matter if you’re related to each other by blood,” Steadman said.

Sen. Kevin Lundberg, a Larimer County Republican, wasn’t buying it. “It still strikes me as something very, very closely akin to marriage as far as Colorado law is recognizing,” he said. “And we all know that’s where we’re headed.”

“This is not just saying treat this person as a spouse,” Steadman countered, contending the beneficiary agreement would operate very differently than marriage. “It may be unilaterally revoked by either party at any time by filing with the county clerk,” he said. “Either party to the agreement can walk away from the agreement in a relatively simple way at any time.”

“I would still contend we’re looking at ‘marriage light’ by another name, by a very artful crafting of the particulars,” Lundberg said.

“It’s marriage by cafeteria style,” he later said, before joining Sen. Scott Renfroe, a Greeley Republican, in voting against the bill. The panel’s four Democrats — Sens. John Morse of Colorado Springs, Morgan Carroll of Aurora, Evie Hudak of Arvada and Linda Newell of Littleton — voted in favor. Colorado Springs Republican Keith King was absent.

Under House Bill 1260, two adults check off a set of rights they want to assign to each other on a form recorded with a county clerk. The “designated beneficiary” form would supersede statutory designations — for instance, when next-of-kin decide whether a person is buried or cremated in the absence of written instructions. Other documents, such as wills, would take precedence over the designated beneficiary form.

The specific rights spelled out in the legislation include:

• Certain financial protections regarding ownership of real and personal property;

• Being a proxy decision-maker or a surrogate decision-maker to make other medical decisions for the other designated beneficiary;

• Being a conservator or guardian for the other designated beneficiary;

• Being treated as a beneficiary under the other designated beneficiary’s benefits for life insurance;

• Being treated as a dependent under the other designated beneficiary’s benefits for health insurance if the designated beneficiary’s employer elects to provide coverage to designated beneficiaries;

• Having the right to visit the other designated beneficiary in the hospital or in a nursing home;

• Inheriting through intestate succession upon the death of the other designated beneficiary;

• Having standing to sue for wrongful death of the other designated beneficiary;

• Acting as an agent to make, revoke or object to anatomical gifts involving the other designated beneficiary;

• Directing the disposition of the other designated beneficiary’s last remains.

The bill advances next to the full Senate for debate.

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Ernest Luning

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