Last week, the Missouri Supreme Court decided the case of Glossip v. Missouri Department of Transportation and Highway Patrol Employees’ Retirement System. The case was brought by Kelly Glossip, the long-time partner of Corporal Dennis Engelhard, a Missouri Highway Patrolman killed in the line of duty on Christmas Day, 2009. Glossip applied for Corporal Engelhard’s survivor benefits, and was denied because the statute only grants benefits to a spouse, and defines spouse to include only opposite-sex couples.
The Supreme Court ruled against Mr. Glossip. The judges reasoned that the statute did not make a distinction based on sexual orientation, but based on the status of married or unmarried. Since Mr. Glossip was not married to Corporal Engelhard, he could not challenge the denial of marriage recognition to same-sex partners. The court found that laws that distinguish between married and unmarried couples are not discriminatory, and therefore are valid if they have any justification. The court ruled the state could make the distinction to save time and money, and so found the law to be constitutional. The court specifically pointed out that they were not ruling on whether discrimination based on sexual orientation was protected by the constitution of the state of Missouri.
In addition to the court’s per curium (written by the court, rather than a single judge) opinion, Judge Richard Teitelman wrote a dissent. Judge Teitelman pointed out that the effect of the law is to deny all people in same-sex relationships access to the survivor benefits under the statute. Therefore, the law does discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, and he found the law to be discriminatory and therefore invalid.
It seems likely that the justices writing for the court were looking to avoid ruling on the controversial topic of a right to benefits for same-sex couples. Given that most Missouri lawyers and judges are seeking to keep politics out of our courts by protecting the Missouri Court Plan, and given the political backlash that has occurred against justices who have granted rights to same-sex couples (especially in Iowa), it is understandable that the Supreme Court found a way to punt on the question. However, Mr. Glossip, who lost his partner and the income that supported their family, was the collateral damage from their decision. He has been denied the benefits that Corporal Engelhard earned by doing the same work as his fellow officers. Also harmed are all of the other same-sex couples, who continue to live a second class citizens.
As long as Missouri denies recognition to same-sex couples, there will be many legal rights they cannot access. One is what is known as Tenancy by the Entirety, a form of property ownership that affords extraordinary protection to the shared property of spouses. Another is the protection of the Wrongful Death statute, which permits those economically dependent on another to bring a claim for their death. Parents, children, and spouses can bring such a claim, but those who are not married or whose marriage is not recognized, which includes all same-sex couples, can not bring such a claim.
Some rights, however, can be protected with proper planning. Wills, trusts, power-of-attorney documents, and other beneficiary designations, can protect a family’s rights and property, even when their relationship is unrecognized by the state. The attorneys at Edelman, Liesen & Myers, L.L.P. provide comprehensive estate planning services, including for same-sex couples and their families, and offer free consultations to any potential clients.