A Sebastopol woman who married her dying partner a week before the U.S. Supreme Court restored the right of California's same-sex couples to wed is poised to win legal recognition of their marriage even though it preceded the high court's landmark ruling.
Stacey Schuett had only one day to be a wife. She already was a widow by the time the California law prohibiting gay and lesbian marriages was struck down June 26.
But a tentative ruling issued Tuesday by Sonoma County Judge Nancy Case Shaffer means Schuett, 52, should soon have full rights as the "surviving spouse" of Lesly Taboada-Hall and as the widowed parent of their two kids. She should thus should be entitled to pension and Social Security benefits for which she would otherwise not be eligible.
"I actually feel giddy," Schuett said after hearing the news Tuesday. "It's going to be a great day."
The ruling, which should be formalized Wednesday morning, comes as the legal landscape continues to shift in favor of expanding rights for gay and lesbian couples around the country.
Several pending, high-profile cases in states where same-sex marriages are still banned involve issues similar to Schuett's and Taboada-Hall's, where the precarious health of one partner requires legal resolution sooner rather than later, advocates for equal marriage rights say.
A federal judge ruled last month that the state of Ohio must recognize the out-of-state marriage of two men, one of whom has Lou Gehrig's disease, if the event he dies before their full lawsuit can be adjudicated.
Elsewhere, a New Mexico judge declared state law banning same-sex couples from obtaining marriage licenses unconstitutionally discriminatory in response to a case raised by two women, one of whom has brain cancer, seeking permission to marry.
"These very urgent situations, I think people are becoming more aware of them, and I think they're playing a role in moving the issue of marriage forward in many other states, as well," said Christopher Stoll, senior staff attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco.
But Schuett's case may be unique in bringing validation to a marriage retroactively, on the grounds it had been prohibited only because of a law that was unconstitutional.
"One of the things that we pointed out to the judge is this is a very unique set of facts," said Kinna Crocker, co-counsel for Schuett and Taboada-Hall.
"Love makes a family," said Stuart Gaffney, communications director for Marriage Equality USA, "but it's marriage that allows couples to protect each other — and their children — in sickness and in health, 'til death do us part. While we are sorry their marriage was only recognized in probate, it is the right decision as a matter of law, and as a matter of love."
Schuett and Taboada-Hall, 56, had been partners for 27 years and registered domestic partners since 2001 when Taboada-Hall died of cancer on June 20.
A gregarious woman with a sharp wit and an eye for stray pets and potential friendships, she was the family's primary breadwinner, working most of their life together and well into her illness as a courier and safety coordinator for FedEx.
Schuett, an artist and illustrator for children's books, is also building a small company with a partner. But she has spent much of her time in the role of stay-at-home mom with daughter Clare, 17, and son, Ian, 14, both Analy High School students.
Two years after registering as domestic partners, the couple received notification from the California Secretary of State that the new Domestic Partner Act granted them "the same rights, protections, and benefits" and "the same responsibilities, obligations, and duties under law .<TH>.<TH>. as are granted to and imposed upon spouses."
They took those words at face value, and never imagined there would be a question one day about Schuett's eligibility for survivor's benefits, said Tate Birnie, the couple's attorney.
The state law on domestic partners seemed clear that they were as good as spouses legally, Schuett said. And because FedEx extended health benefits to same-sex partners, they assumed Taboada-Hall's pension would similarly pass down to her, she said.
When same-sex marriages were briefly legalized in 2008, they talked about planning their own wedding, Birnie said. Six months later, California voters passed Proposition 8, permitting marriage only between one man and one woman.
Then in 2010, Taboada-Hall was diagnosed with metastatic cancer. A course of chemotherapy brought her 16 months of remission. But the cancer was back last fall in her lungs and in her brain. Despite more treatment, the disease spread. Early this summer, June 3, she was told nothing more could be done.
Taboada-Hall already was in hospice care when the pair met with Birnie to ensure a smooth financial transition when the inevitable came. It was then they learned Schuett was not entitled to spousal pension or Social Security benefits she had counted on to keep their family financially secure.
"The whole argument around Prop. 8 was 'We're withholding spouse, but you have the same rights and responsibilities,'<TH>" Birnie recalled. "They were absolutely shocked when I said, 'No, that doesn't mean you.'<TH>"
With rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court on the horizon in two major same-sex marriage cases, the couple applied for a marriage license and worked with the Sonoma County Clerk's Office to be prepared to be wed as soon as legally possible. County Supervisor Efren Carrillo also agreed to be on stand-by to officiate on short notice.
But as Taboada-Hall's condition deteriorated, they contemplated flying to another state where same-sex marriages already were being performed. Ultimately, between waiting periods and the hardship of a flight, they determined Taboada-Hall's condition was too fragile.
Finally, they went forward June 19 with a ceremony at home that was both a wedding and a send-off. Taboada-Hall was unable to get up from bed, so, Birnie said, "the wedding came to her."
Family and friends crammed into the bedroom of their Sebastopol home, standing in tiers around Taboada-Hall's railed hospital bed — some atop furniture so everyone could squeeze in. The bride and bride wore flowers in their hair, and Taboada-Hall smiled as she proclaimed "I do."
She died a day later.
In a petition filed in probate court last month, Birnie argued that the couple did everything possible to wed legally but were barred from obtaining a license by an unconstitutional law.
At stake are several hundred thousand dollars that would accrue to Schuett during her lifetime, ensuring financial security for her and the couple's teenage kids.
Shaffer's ruling should be finalized Wednesday morning and can then be submitted to the state to obtain a certificate of marriage, Birnie said.
"We are just so thrilled that Stacey and Lesly's marriage is recognized," she said. "It's very, very exciting."
"I know Lesly would be totally charged about this," Schuett said. "She would be really happy.
"It's hard to have been married officially for, like, one day, and to have lost her," she continued. "But it feels right. It feels like everything kind of came full circle, even though it's sort of after-the-fact for Lesly. It's so important to us."
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or firstname.lastname@example.org.