Joe Mirabella

Washington's new domestic partnership law limited by DOMA and DADT

Filed By Joe Mirabella | December 07, 2009 9:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality, Politics, Politics
Tags: DOMA, domestic partnership, Don't Ask Don't Tell, insurance laws, usaa, Washington State

Washington's new domestic partnership expansion law went into effect last week on December 3. My partner and I marked the occasion by registering as Domestic Partners with the state of Washington. We are already running into challenges.

According to the new law, we are supposed to be treated equally to married heterosexual couples under state law. Supposedly the only difference in the code is the terminology for our relationship. Straight couple's use the word marriage; gay couples use the words domestic partnerships.

Married couples generally save money on their auto insurance. Insurance companies view married people as more responsible and less likely to get into accidents. I decided I would give the new law a test run, so I called my insurance company to see if they would indeed treat us equally.

I use USAA for my auto and property insurance. They have a strong record for excellent customer service. Their rates are the best in the industry, and they have always come through for me when I needed them. When I don't use my insurance during the fiscal year, they return part of the premium. I don't know of another company that does that. Up until now, I honestly loved my insurance company.

When I called to inform USAA about my domestic partnership I expected to be treated equally as the state law dictates. I expected USAA to follow through on their stellar reputation for premium customer service. I was wrong.

USAA cherry-picked the laws they would honor. My pocket book was initially happy because USAA gave us the married couple discount. We will save $100 per year on our auto insurance. However, if I am killed in a collision, my partner would not be able to get full access to our accounts without having a power of attorney filed with USAA prior to the accident. A married heterosexual couple does not have to go through that extra step.

I had to dig to get this information over the phone. It was not readily offered to me when I called. If I did not ask the right questions, we may learn the hard way when it's too late.

I requested a written response from the company explaining their discriminatory policy. This is how they replied:

We understand your concern with the extra effort required to obtain a power of attorney. USAA is aware of the new Washington specific state laws surrounding domestic partnerships. USAA is a membership based company that considers cohabitants, domestic partners, civil union partners, and same-sex marriage spouses not eligible for membership as dependents. USAA looks to the Department of Defense and Internal Revenue code to determine this dependent designation. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.

To become a member of USAA you either have to be a former service member or the decedent of a former service member who also was a member of USAA. I applaud USAA for being more progressive than the military. I'm glad they are willing to honor our relationship enough to provide the married couple discount, but I am dumbfounded that they cited both Department of Defense code (I assume they are referring to Don't Ask Don't Tell) and the IRS code to justify their selective discrimination. Neither my partner nor I are in the military. We should never be regulated by DOD code.

The IRS, of course, is another animal. Their rules for recognizing dependents are dictated by the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). But again, I'm still not clear why DOMA would prevent a private member based company from treating their customers justly. USAA is not a government entity.

I spoke to an attorney to get a quote for a power of attorney. She correctly advised us to get a slew of paperwork to protect ourselves including wills, durable powers of attorney, living wills, medical directives, and so on. The total bill for the necessary documents should Joe and I choose to travel beyond the safety zone of Washington state: $1600.00. So much for my annual $100 per year savings.

In USAA's defense they do have a free power of attorney form we can fill out for our interactions with them. But this experience was a stark reminder how limited our state by state laws are. Without meaningful federal reform our state laws provide only limited protection -- protection people probably won't realize they need until they are in the midst of a personal crisis.

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Two things.

First, thanks for this fascinating insight [and your diligence]. USAA’s tying ANY of their decisions to DOMA or DADT is not just morally inexcusable, it’s illogical. BUT that doesn’t mean that public embarrassment ... and threat of legal action by someone in Washington state ... can’t get them to change their minds, no matter how big they are. I saw this first hand years ago when Northwest Airlines was refusing to fly people with AIDS. Because of his notoriety, Leonard Matlovich was able to get TV cameras to follow him to the Northwest counter at San Francisco airport and film him as they refused to sell him a ticket after he told them he had AIDS.

That was followed by a press conference in which he and his attorney announced their intention to sue NWA. First, the airline responded by saying that they WOULD sell him a ticket IF he provided a doctor’s letter declaring him well enough to fly. “Unacceptable!” he responded, and within weeks they had dropped the ban entirely. The organizers of the fight to legalize domestic partnerships in Washington state SHOULD be able to recreate these scenarios, e.g., film your side of a telephone discussion with a USAA rep [and announce they’ll do the same with any entity refusing to honor the law], plus be willing to fight legally to see it enforced...otherwise what's the point of the battle?

SECOND: this is the perfect time to also introduce those unfamiliar with them to the absolutely fantastic NOLO, a legal advice organization started in 1971 in Berkeley by two legal aid attorneys for low income families.

In addition to publishing 150+ books, much of their information is now accessible online. “At, you can make a will or trust, incorporate your business, trademark your business’s name, and much more—all online, but with Nolo’s clear guidance along the way.” And, “a free online encyclopedia. It’s packed with thousands of pages of free articles and information on just about any legal topic imaginable from property law and immigration to divorce and real estate. There’s a free law dictionary, too, that translates ‘legalese’ into plain English.” They also have a lawyer referral service for instances more complicated, identified geographically, of course, and by subject area. Some even include photos of the attorneys which sounds facile but having worked in two law firms I’ve noticed that pictures often reveal a lot about the personality of an attorney, and, yes, that is an important component of a successful relationship.

I have used NOLO's information several times, e.g., to identify my rights as a renter, and even did an [uncontested] divorce for one of my straight friends many years ago without a single minute of a lawyer’s time just using the information and forms supplied in one of their books. Though it still involved my going to the county clerk to file papers, it saved him some $600—the cheapest quote he got from a lawyer at the time [now it would be, we assume, considerably more].

For instance, you can use their online software for as little as $50.00 to create a “basic will” that will be legal in every state but Louisiana.

“If the following statements describe you, a basic will is probably enough:
- You're under age 50.
- You're in pretty good health.
- You don't expect to owe estate tax at your death" - NOLO

Estate tax applies if yours amounts to more than $3.5 MILLION ... let’s count hands, shall we?

RE “health care documents”

“There are two basic documents that allow you to set out your wishes for medical care: a living will and a durable power of attorney for health care. It's wise to prepare both. In some states, the living will and the power of attorney are combined into a single form -- often called an advance directive. (In fact, both of these documents are types of health care directives -- that is, documents that let you specify your wishes for health care in the event that you become unable to speak for yourself.)” - NOLO

RE “financial power of attorney”

“The durable financial power of attorney is a simple way to arrange for someone to handle your finances. A durable power of attorney for finances -- or financial power of attorney -- is a simple, inexpensive, and reliable way to arrange for someone to manage your finances if you become incapacitated (unable to make decisions for yourself). …You should specify that you want your power of attorney to be ‘durable’. If you don't, in most states, it will automatically end if you later become incapacitated.” – NOLO

They’ll identify for you any of the steps required that vary from state to state, e.g., whether or not the particular document has to be signed by a witness[es] and/or notarized. A given person’s situation may involve variables that are best suited by involving an attorney, but they’re the place to start to determine that, and you can be confidant that, since they’re not getting paid by the hour, they have no incentive to ensnare you.

None of this means I’m “anti-lawyer.” I’m just anti paying more than you need for anything regardless of your resources. PLUS: I believe no one should approach an attorney or a doctor [about a specific, existing ailment] without having done as much research ahead of time as possible.

Even some of the best-intentioned doctors are guilty of the profession's compulsion to tell you as little as possible, and, yes, Blanche, knowledge is power.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | December 7, 2009 3:07 PM

The repeal of Bill Clintons DADT and DOMA by his Dixiecrat, Blue Dog and Republican colleagues in Congress is unlikely in the extreme.

That means that any gains we make in terms of partnering are going to very limited even in the few states where we won and nonexistent in the 40 or so states where Democrats and Republicans united to shoot us down.

All the privileges now offered to married straight people should be offered to all couples regardless of sexuality, to single people and to unmarried relatives living together.

One thing I have found distrubing is the fact that at my civilian job I have coworkers citing 'DADT' as if it applies to a civilian workplace. Being a retired member of the US Military I find it .... irritating and ignorant for them to cite DADT which is only applicalbe to Military members. I only see DADT eating away at civilian rights until its repealed.