Two elderly sisters are
upset because, if one of them dies, the other will have to
sell the house they have lived in all of their lives in
order to pay a hefty British death tax. A surviving
spouse would pay no inheritance tax, nor would a surviving
same-sex partner registered under the nation's new civil
Burden and her sister Sybil,
both in their eighties, never married. Instead they
chose a life on the family farm helping their parents and
enjoying each other's company.
The family home, which they
jointly inherited five years ago, is now worth about
The death tax would be about 236,000 pounds, and neither of them
has that kind of money. So when one of them dies, the
other will have to sell the house in order to pay the tax.
British law exempts only
two kinds of relationships -- surviving spouses and
surviving same-sex partners -- from inheritance taxes.
Blood relatives are prohibited from registering their
relationship in either of these categories.
The sisters believe that
British law unfairly excludes them from an inheritance tax
exemption. So they have taken their case to the
European Court of Human Rights.
Their lawyer is arguing
tax laws violate their right to enjoy their property under
the first protocol to the European Convention on Human
Rights, in addition to the anti-discrimination provisions of
"If we were
a lesbian couple, we would not be facing massive inheritance
bills," Joyce, 88, told the Evening Standard newspaper.
"This is an insult to single people who have looked after
Unmarried blood relatives
living together in Canada and the United States are in
predicament similar to that of the Burden sisters.
They aren't afforded the benefits allowed by state and
federal laws governing marriage, and state laws creating
rights for two adults registered in a civil union or
domestic partnership generally exclude blood relatives.
Canada is beginning to acknowledge this
issue. A 2001 report from the Law Commission of
Canada, “Beyond Conjugality: Recognizing & Supporting Close
Personal Adult Relationships,” recommended that Parliament
pass new laws to equally honor and support all caring and
interdependent relationships, not just married couples or
In the United States,
Census data show that a growing number of adult siblings are
about 733,000 adults lived with a brother or sister in a
household that did not include a parent.
To my knowledge, only one state and one local
government allow blood relatives to participate in
registration systems which convey benefits to registered
adults. Hawaii has a reciprocal beneficiary procedure
and the District of Columbia has a domestic partnership
I recall when a domestic
partnership registry was close to becoming a reality in the
State of California. I met briefly with Antonio
Villaraigosa, then Speaker of the State Assembly, and asked
him to support a registry that would include any two
unmarried adults who met specific criteria. I argued
that it was unfair to exclude blood relatives.
he told me that he agreed with my argument, he soon changed
his mind, and the proposal passed with a blood-relative
exclusion. I was informed that gay rights lobbying groups
insisted that domestic partnership should mimic marriage. Since
marriage excludes blood relatives, the same should apply to domestic partnership.
Almost all public and
private employers with domestic partner benefits programs
exclude blood relatives. A few businesses, however,
have adopted a policy of inclusion and allow blood relatives
to participate in their benefits plans.
Bank of America was the
first to do this when it adopted an "extended family"
benefits program in 1998. Merrill Lynch launched a
similar plan for its employees in 1999. Nationwide
Insurance began offering a "household benefits" package in
private benefits programs and government registries show
that benefits and legal protections don't have to be tied to
marriage or marriage substitutes. They can be made
available to everyone, including blood relatives.
benefits and legal protections do not have to be limited to
relationships which involve sexual intimacy. Why
should sexual relationships be elevated above all others?
the Burden sisters for their courage and conviction.
Whether they win or lose their case in the European Court of
Human Rights, these two women have raised an issue which
needs to be addressed, not only in Europe and in North
America, but everywhere.