Same-sex couples may not be able to get married in Georgia, but honey, they sure can get divorced. OK, so maybe not technically, but their break-ups can end up in courtroom dramas as fierce as “The War of the Roses.”
“While Georgia law doesn’t recognize LGBT marriages and relationships, we often intertwine our lives with our partners in a way that leads to legal action should something go wrong in the relationship,” says Jeff Cleghorn (photo), who specializes in family law as a partner at the law firm Kitchens New Cleghorn.
“When there are children involved, LGBT parents can go through a custody battle similar to heterosexual couples, there are disputes over property that are serious enough to involve a court case – everything from who owns the house to who will keep the dog,” he adds.
Just imagine the claws that are flashed when two queens start fighting over their four-legged loved ones. That’s when the Shih Tzu hits the fan.
Along with helping heterosexuals go through divorce, Kitchens New Cleghorn has developed a reputation for guiding LGBT couples through the patchwork legal landscape that exists in Georgia. They also represent clients who were in a heterosexual marriage when they came out, and who can face anti-gay challenges in their divorces and custody disputes.
“A break-up is already a very hard experience to go through, and it can seem even more overwhelming when you feel like the legal system is stacked against you,” Cleghorn says. “It’s important to have someone advocating for you who knows the law, knows the legal culture, knows LGBT culture, and can try to build a bridge between those arenas.”
Here are four simple steps that gay Georgians can take to protect their relationships, their families, and their personal interests within the anti-gay legal arena in the state.
Domestic Partnership Agreement
Essentially a gay pre-nup, a domestic partnership agreement outlines the terms of separation should a couple ever split. Don’t confuse this with the Domestic Partnership certificate offered by the City of Atlanta and other progressive jurisdictions in Georgia. Those certificates are entirely ceremonial and carry no legal weight, so it’s best to draw up an enforceable contract with a private attorney.
Power of Attorney and Advance Health Care Directive
“These documents are important to everyone, not just LGBT folks in relationships,” Cleghorn says.
A Power of Attorney enlists someone to make medical, financial and other decisions on your behalf if you are unable to, while an Advance Health Care Directive outlines the type—and extent—of care that you would like to receive in case of an emergency.
“This paperwork not only protects you during a vulnerable time, but it can offer peace of mind to family and loved ones who know that your wishes are carried out in case of an emergency,” Cleghorn says.
With same-sex marriage outlawed in Georgia, there is no guarantee that property and other assets will be passed from a deceased person to his or her surviving partner.
“A marriage license from Massachusetts or New York is symbolically important to LGBT couples in Georgia, but it will not empower a gay spouse to make medical decisions about his or her ill partner, or entitle them to any inheritance in a worst-case scenario,” Cleghorn says. “If the biological family of the ill or deceased partner is hostile toward the relationship or homosexuality in general, the surviving partner can be entirely shut out if he or she does not have prior legal security.”
A Last Will offers a safety net by designating specific beneficiaries, whether it’s a boyfriend, best friend or four-legged friend.
More and more LGBT couples are deciding to raise children, but unlike hetero breeders, a gay parent doesn’t automatically have the same legal rights as his or her partner. Whether the child joins the family via adoption or biological family planning, it’s important for both parents to secure themselves as the legal guardian of the child. When one LGBT partner is the biological parent of the child, the other partner can seek a second-parent adoption to solidify the parental relationship under Georgia law. State law gives discretion to judges and doesn’t explicitly allow or prohibit adoptions by LGBT parents.
“If the non-biological parent does not go through the adoption process, then they and the child are legal strangers,” Cleghorn says. “No matter how long that parent has been in the child’s life, no matter how much the love each other, without the proper paperwork there is simply no legal connection between the two individuals.”
Working with LGBT clients and on behalf of gay issues is nothing new for Kitchens New Cleghorn, which has been strong advocates for same-sex relationships in and out of the courtroom.
Partner Randy New was one of the two LGBT Atlantans that filed—and won—a human rights complaint against the Druid Hills Golf Club for its discriminatory policies against same-sex couples. Cleghorn worked on sucessful efforts to end the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on LGBT soldiers, watched in person as President Obama ended the ban and cheered the policy’s demise during events in Atlanta. Cleghorn is also past president of the gay attorney group Stonewall Bar Association. In 2011, the Human Rights Campaign honored Cleghorn with the Dan Bradley Humanitarian Award at its annual Atlanta dinner.
New and Cleghorn have been involved in various Atlanta LGBT non-profit groups over the years, including serving on the boards of Georgia Equality, AID Atlanta and YouthPride. Kitchens New Cleghorn currently serves as outside legal counsel to the Atlanta Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, Atlanta Pride and Southern Comfort.
Photo by Brent Corcoran