Seniors take advantage of domestic partnership law

Domestic partner, life partner, those current labels don’t roll easily off the tongue of 78-year-old Eloise Sheets. That’s not how the Mountlake Terrace widow describes Eugene Schardein.

“The fellow I live with, I’ve known him all my life,” Sheets said of Schardein, 79, who has shared her life and her home for five years.

They grew up together in rural Kansas, “three miles apart,” she said. “We were both from farms and attended the same church.”

Life took Sheets far from the Kansas town of Nickerson. She married and moved west in 1960. She and Schardein would see each other at school reunions. Years flew by and their spouses died, first her husband in 1990, and later his wife.

“He sent me a letter that his wife had died,” she said. Letters grew into phone calls. Eventually, Schardein came to visit.

After one more high school reunion, “we decided to live together,” Sheets said. He sold his home, and they live in the house she owns.

Marry? No, that isn’t in their financial best interest. For some seniors, marriage brings a loss of Social Security benefits.

“I was getting Social Security, and that would have been cut down had we gotten married. We didn’t think it was worth it,” Sheets said.

Sheets and Schardein have exactly the sort of relationship included in the state’s new domestic partnership law, which took effect Monday. The spotlight was on gay couples who lined up in Olympia to register with the secretary of state. Also included in the law are heterosexual couples in which at least one partner is 62 or older.

Among the enhanced privileges are the right to visit a partner in the hospital, to inherit property without a will, to grant consent for health care if a partner can’t, and to make funeral arrangements.

The Mountlake Terrace couple haven’t yet decided whether they’ll seek a legal partnership, which costs $50 for registration.

Sheets and her partner have been clear about who inherits their property upon their deaths.

“We have an agreement that whatever is his goes to his kids and whatever is mine goes to mine,” she said. Sheets has one child, he has three. “The things we bought together, they’ll have to fight over,” she added.

Marriage can tighten seniors’ purse strings.

“It is true that remarriage can terminate certain types of Social Security benefits. However, in many instances it has no effect,” said Joy Chang, regional communications director with the Social Security office in Seattle.

Chang said if you’re collecting Social Security benefits on your own account, they continue no matter how old you are when you remarry. If you’re over 60 and collecting widow’s benefits, they’d continue unchanged. Benefits would end, though, if you remarry while collecting survivor’s benefits for a child in your care.

Some pensions, too, have rules that lessen payments depending on marital status.

The new partnership law provides far more than a meaningless piece of paper.

I once interviewed a woman who described a harrowing time after her partner’s death. A funeral home refused to release the loved one’s ashes. She had to locate her partner’s son, who lived far away, to give written permission for her to retrieve the urn.

At the South County Senior Center in Edmonds, executive director Farrell Fleming said that inclusion of seniors in the law is “actually quite important.”

“Quite frankly, a lot of seniors find each other, and sometimes for family reasons or financial reasons they choose not to get married,” he said. “This will make a genuine difference for them, particularly with medical issues.”

I’m with Sheets in wanting all I own to eventually go to my children. Still, I can only imagine the sadness and frustration of being told I couldn’t be by the hospital bedside of someone dear to me.

As baby boomers reach their 60s, “it’s a huge population,” Fleming said. “With domestic partnerships, it may end up being a larger number of seniors than gay couples. I think it will have profound impact.”

Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or muhlsteinjulie@heraldnet.com.

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