Widow’s In-laws Seeking Control of Estate and Death Benefits

(San Francisco, August 3, 2011)—The National Center for Lesbian Rights is representing Jennifer Tobits, the widow of Sarah Ellyn Farley, whose parents are challenging the couple’s marriage and seeking control of Farley’s estate and death benefits provided by her employer.

This week, Tobits filed court documents seeking to be named the executor of her wife’s estate and defending her status as a surviving spouse. Tobits’s in-laws had sought to take control of their deceased daughter’s estate. They had also directed their daughter’s employer to pay them, not Tobits, her death benefits under the employer’s profit-sharing plan, arguing that the couple’s four-year Canadian marriage is invalid and their relationship should not be recognized.

“Ellyn was the love of my life,” said Tobits. “No one should have to experience the pain of losing the person who means the most to you, only to face a shocking and hostile challenge to your marriage—your commitment, your life together, and everything you built as a couple.”

Tobits and Farley lived in Chicago and were married in Toronto in 2006. Two weeks after their wedding, Farley was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer. The couple fought the disease together for four years until September 2010, when Farley passed away. She was 37. In their last few days together, Farley told Tobits she feared her parents, who had never respected her relationship with Tobits—and did not take part in their wedding celebration—would turn on Tobits after Farley’s death and do whatever they could to make sure that they, and not Tobits, would inherit Farley’s assets.

Shortly after Farley’s death, her parents filed a court action in Illinois probate court to take over the administration of her estate, telling the court that their daughter had “never married” and that they, and not Tobits, were her heirs. They also told Farley’s employer, a law firm, that they should receive their daughter’s death benefits under the firm’s profit-sharing plan, claiming that Farley had signed a form naming them her beneficiaries.

In January 2011, Farley’s employer filed an action in the federal district court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to determine whether Tobits or Farley’s parents should receive the benefits. In her response, filed Monday, Tobits argues that the designation form is invalid because Farley’s parents pressured her to sign it on her deathbed, less than 24 hours before she died, and because a married person cannot designate another person to receive benefits without the written permission of her spouse. Farley’s parents claim that Farley’s marriage to Tobits should not be recognized.

“When Ellyn was alive, her parents refused to respect her identity or to acknowledge her marriage,” said NCLR Legal Director Shannon Minter. “Now they are continuing to try to erase who she was and to pretend her relationship with Jennifer never existed. We are confident the courts will not let that happen.”

Farley’s parents are represented by the Thomas More Society, an anti-gay legal organization. In press releases, the group’s executive director has referred to Tobits as a “leech,” who is trying to “pad her pocketbook.”

NCLR and co-counsel Benjamin L. Jerner and Tiffany Palmer of Jerner & Palmer, P.C., Teresa Renaker and Julie Wilensky of Lewis, Feinberg, Lee, Renaker and Jackson, P.C., and Dan Ebner and Ray Prather of Prather Ebner LLP are defending Tobits’s right to be recognized as Farley’s spouse.

read tobits’s answer to interpleader

The National Center for Lesbian Rights is a national legal organization committed to advancing the civil and human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and their families through litigation, public policy advocacy, and public education.