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June 02, 2005
Court Denies Domestic Partner Benefits

The domestic partner of a flight attendant killed in an airplane crash in November 2001 is not entitled to survivor benefits under the state's workers' compensation law, a state appellate court recently decided.

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What happened. Joe Lopes, a flight attendant for American Airlines, was killed in a plane crash in November 2001. He'd been living with his partner, William Valentine, for 21 years, and the two men owned an apartment together, jointly held bank accounts and investments, designated each other as executors and beneficiaries on various legal documents, and had registered as domestic partners in New York City.

In the wake of the tragedy, Valentine applied for death benefits as a surviving spouse under the state's workers' comp law. A workers' compensation law judge found that although Lopes had suffered a work-related injury resulting in death, Valentine was not eligible for death benefits. Valentine appealed in state court, claiming that the state's decision to make workers' compensation death benefits available to the same-sex survivors of those killed in the September 11 terrorist attacks set a precedent.

What the court said. The death benefits provisions of the workers' comp law define the term "surviving spouse" to mean the "legal spouse" of the deceased employee. The term "legal spouse" is not further defined in the statute, the court pointed out, but in view of the fact that lawmakers enacted the law at the beginning of the last century, it cannot seriously be contended that they envisioned that nonmarried domestic partners would be considered legal spouses.

Although the law was amended to allow death benefits for domestic partners of those who died on 9/11/01, that clause was limited to that situation. In fact, the Legislature's in-clusion of domestic partners in one situation and its failure to provide a comparable inclusion in another is compelling evidence that no such broad inclusion was intended. Valentine was ineligible for the benefits, the court ruled. Valentine v. American Airlines, Supreme Court, Appellate Division, 3rd Department, No. 01953 (3/17/05).

Point to remember: This is a rapidly developing issue both in society and in the law. Many employers have already taken their companies one step ahead of what the law requires by granting benefits to domestic partners under a variety of privately administered employee benefit plans.

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