It's still a straight world

The age of consent may be lowered, but gays will still face severe legal and fiscal prejudices.
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The Independent Culture
WHEN LUIS Canizares lost his lifelong partner, it was some comfort that the two men had prepared financially for death. Having lived together for 36 years, they had made wills in each other's favour. So although their dream of retiring together to a small place in the sun in southern Spain had been dashed, Luis thought that, perhaps, he could afford to realise their hopes alone.

But even that was not to be. Despite last night's vote on equalising at 16 the homosexual and heterosexual ages of consent, same sex couples still suffer serious financial discrimination. It hits them worst when one partner dies.

Luis and John (not his real name) had enjoyed a happy relationship and set up home in south west London. Luis had supported his partner through his final years, when he suffered from depression. John died in his arms.

But it was a financially unequal relationship. John, a successful writer, had always made more money. "We agreed early on," says Luis, an artist, "that I would stay at home and keep our house, that one of us had to take a step backwards if we were to save our relationship." But John thought he had ensured that Luis would be provided for if anything happened to him.

However, John, who died, aged 67, of a brain haemorrhage in 1996, had not been buried long when Luis's financial troubles began. First, the Inland Revenue demanded pounds 80,000 in taxes on his inheritance. Had the couple been married, the Revenue accepted, there would have been no charge. But, because they were unmarried, Luis faced tax demands on everything he had inherited - a half share in their home plus some shares. John's former employers then revealed that, unlike a widow or widower, Luis had no rights to his lover's pension. Nor could Luis expect a penny from a life insurance policy worth nearly pounds 100,000. John had not specifically named him as a beneficiary because it would have increased the premiums. Luis quickly set aside his hopes of living in Andalucia. He also became highly critical of lawyers who, he says, advise poorly on the particular problems their gay clients face.

"I have lady friends who say that everyone has to cope with financial problems after a death," says Luis. "But it's not the same. I have not only lost the one I love. I also face tremendous financial insecurity. When their husbands die, they know the cheques will start coming in regularly and they don't have to worry."

Such issues demonstrate that equalising the age of consent at 16 for homosexuals and heterosexuals is only one aspect of the legal discrimination which same sex couples face. "This government is barking up the wrong tree," says Luis. "If a boy of 16 wants to make love, he will do it whether it is legal or illegal. The issue that the law needs to address is that you can sweep aside 36 years of life and pretend that nothing has grown in human or legal terms."

Anya Palmer of Stonewall, the gay and lesbian pressure group, highlights the current unfairness: "At the moment, heterosexual couples can be married 36 days and leave pounds 36m and there is no ceiling on what can be left to a spouse."

The consequences of such inequality can be severe. "I'm one of the lucky ones," says Luis, who has managed to pay his tax bill. "Many of my friends have had to sell their homes. Some are destitute, facing bills which they have no pensions to pay."

It could have been worse for Luis. If John had not made a will, Luis would have had no legal claim on his estate. Had the couple not owned the property, he might also have been homeless. In a recent case, a gay man lost his claim to take over the tenancy of a home he shared with his now deceased partner. An appeal is due to be heard by the House of Lords.

Circumventing the immigration rules is also much harder for same sex couples. Since last year, the regulations have been relaxed. Now, a couple in which one partner is from outside the European Union can gain British residency by proving that the pair have lived like a married couple for four years. But this is still three years longer than the period required of married couples.

It is whether a couple is married or not that causes the discrimination. Gay, lesbian and unmarried heterosexual couples are all in the same boat in the eyes of the law and the taxman.

Legal redress may be on the way. Registered partnership laws have been passed in the last decade in several Scandinavian countries, notably Sweden. These changes provide almost the same rights as civil marriage, except over children. A number of MPs, notably Ben Bradshaw, the first openly gay candidate to win a seat, want these reforms to apply here. But, if they are instituted in Britain, they will come too late for Luis Canizares and thousands of other grieving partners.

The same-sex couple's survival guide

HOW SAME-SEX couples can avoid losing out when their partner dies.

Make a will, otherwise your partner can expect nothing. If you have children, make sure your partner is mentioned as your preferred guardian. This may help in any future court case.

Unlike married couples, you cannot avoid having to pay tax on inheritances above pounds 223,000 (at 40 per cent). But it is possible to take out an insurance policy against a big inheritance tax bill.

Work for one of the few companies, such as John Lewis, British Telecom and Powergen, which allow same-sex couples to transfer pension rights to their partners when they die. Most of the public sector still refuses to allow this flexibility, although the old universities (as distinct from former poly-technics) have liberalised their rules.

Argue with your occupational pension scheme for a change in their rules. Always, in any case, nominate your partner as a dependent. Most pension-scheme trustees have residual discretion about a pension after the first claimant has died. Some are prepared to hand over a lump sum payment, if not a regular income, to your named partner.

There is a further reason for making your relationship clear in your will. The Inland Revenue, which has to approve pension sales, has traditionally allowed survivors' benefits to be paid only to dependents, a term interpreted as families. But it has recently relaxed inter-pretation so that mutual dependence rather than dependence need be demon-strated.

You could take out a personal pension. This offers flexibility - your partner should have no trouble inheriting. The down side is that it can prove more expensive and less generous than staying in an occupational pension scheme.

Name your partner as "next of kin" in your will. This will make it easier for them to have a say in any medical care. You could also grant your partner "power of attorney", which is helpful when dealing with the medical profession if you are incapacitated.

If you are embarking on a relationship with a partner from outside the European Union and you think it could be long standing, collect evidence of your relationship. This could prove valuable in future because the immigration authorities demand evidence that you have been living together like a married couple for at least four years.

If you rent your home, seek joint tenancy. Otherwise you could be evicted if your partner holds the tenancy and dies.