OLYMPIA – After years together, Florence and Charles are so close that after they die, they’d like their ashes combined.
So when Charles had cancer surgery three years ago, Florence wanted to be there to comfort him when he woke up.
“OK, Mrs. Cornell, we’ll see what we can do,” the nurse said.
Florence thanked her, got in to see Charles, and never revealed the couple’s little secret: they’re not married and probably never will be.
They can’t afford to. If Florence Carrico – whose previous husband died in 2003 – remarries, she’ll lose his military and federal pension benefits. When he died, she said, “Everyone stressed, endlessly: Don’t remarry. Even if he’s Christ the Lord, don’t remarry.”
So Florence Carrico and Charles Cornell Jr., a heterosexual couple, are doing what hundreds of gay and lesbian couples have done in Washington this summer: They’re paying a $50 fee and registering as domestic partners.
“We can’t hardly be more spiritually committed than we are,” said Carrico. “But it would be nice to have someone who could legally speak on each other’s behalf.”
The Spokane couple is one of an unknown number of heterosexual senior citizen couples registering with the state. Domestic partners get a few of the rights of spouses – hospital visitation, inheritance if there is no will, the right to make medical decisions – but without losing retirement benefits that would disappear if they remarry.
“I like it,” said Yvonne Splan, 86, of Spokane Valley, who also plans to register with her longtime male companion. “The way we are now, I don’t have any rights to get involved in his health care or funeral.”
Although much of the debate and lobbying on the domestic partnership law revolved around gay and lesbian couples, state lawmakers deliberately added a section that allows heterosexual couples to sign up, so long as at least one partner is at least 62 years old. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the three states with similar registries – Maine, California and Hawaii – all have similar rules.
The reason was exactly the one faced by Carrico: for many senior citizens, particularly women, remarrying after the death of a spouse would mean losing pensions or retirement benefits tied to their former spouse. So those lucky enough to connect with a new partner grow old with a host of uncertainties, not knowing even if medical privacy rules will deny them the right to be with each other in their final moments.
“If I had corrected that nurse and said ‘Oh, I’m not his wife,’ ” Carrico said, “I would have been nothing. Not a spouse, not a legal guardian, nothing. And I just wanted to see him and touch him. I wanted to let him know that I was there for him.”
Splan said that she and her companion, who is 88, have been lucky. Through two knee replacements and a bout with cancer, medical workers apparently just assumed that the couple was married.
Washington state began accepting domestic partnerships on July 23. Since then, more than 1,200 couples have registered. No one knows how many of those are heterosexual senior citizens. No one asks.
“There’s no check box on the form or anything,” said Joanie Deutsch, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s office. “It’s not necessary for us to know to administer the program, and it’s kind of invasive to ask.”
Still, she said, the office has fielded a large number of calls from such couples, asking how they can sign up. According to the senior citizens group AARP, the 2000 census found that nearly 267,000 unmarried couples over the age of 65 were living together in the U.S,
In general, the Social Security Administration says, people who remarry after age 60 can still get payments based on their former spouse’s work. But retirement and pension rules for other systems vary dramatically. A study three years ago by attorney and state Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, found “remarriage penalties” ranging from public-employee pension plans to the free license plates available to surviving spouses of prisoners of war. Also, the state’s worker’s compensation system may end survivor’s pensions for remarried spouses of workers who died from workplace disease or injury. According to the AARP, military widows or widowers who remarry lose their military health care benefits.
If Carrico remarried, she said, she’d lose key retirement benefits. She’d also lose military benefits like her lifetime free membership at a local non-commissioned officers’ club, or the inexpensive camping hookups at military campsites.
Bruce Reeves, president of Washington’s Senior Citizens’ Lobby, said there’s a second reason why some senior couples sign up: It “provides cover” for unmarried couples whose friends or relatives may not approve.
“A lot of seniors fall in love again, and this bill gives a certain amount of legality and a stamp of approval to that,” Reeves said. “Maybe it’ll satisfy some of their friends and maybe not.”
Carrico said she’s not worried about that. But she saw it weigh on folks when she volunteered at a local senior center.
“A lot of folks need that marriage thing and think they’re living in sin,” she said. “But if they live in sin, they can afford to live.”