When I first heard Jennifer’s story, I was angry and shocked. Not shocked in the sense of “how could something like this happen?”—I’ve been doing this work too long to be that naïve—but shocked in the way we are when faced with cruelty and a lack of common decency.
Jennifer Tobits and Sarah “Ellyn” Farley married in Canada in 2006. Shortly after their wedding, Ellyn was diagnosed with cancer and passed away in September 2010.
Jennifer had lost Ellyn, the love of her life. But in the midst of her grieving, Ellyn’s parents swooped in to take from Jennifer the one key thing Ellyn meant for Jennifer to have after her death: a modest retirement account.
Ellyn had already left her parents a sizable life insurance policy, but in their last act of cruelty toward their lost daughter, they became craven and greedy and forced Jennifer into a lawsuit she neither sought nor wanted.
Jennifer, a widow, was denied the simple right to quietly grieve her loss. But this week, we won for Jennifer—and for Ellyn!
On Monday, a judge ruled that Jennifer was a spouse and that her marriage to Ellyn was valid and must be recognized. Jennifer will receive the retirement benefits Ellyn left to her.
This case involved some big and complicated legal questions: The federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), provisions of the Internal Revenue Code, and the federal ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act) law were all at issue. Even Congress got involved when the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group—the ridiculous body created to defend DOMA after the Obama administration refused to do so—intervened in the case.
The key to deciding if Jennifer won was determining if she was a “spouse.” You know she was a spouse. I know she was a spouse. Ellyn’s law firm, who refused to pay the benefits to Jennifer, knew she was a spouse. That was reality. And on Monday, reality was recognized as truth.
Too often we have seen reality undone by bigotry. But not this time.
In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down Section 3 of DOMA, the court in Jennifer’s case ruled that the term “spouse” “is no longer unconstitutionally restricted to members of the opposite sex, but now rightfully includes those same-sex spouses in “otherwise valid marriages.”
The court continued, “There can be no doubt that Ms. Tobits is Ms. Farley’s ‘surviving spouse’ under the Plan in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Windsor.”
While we are elated by this vindication for Jennifer, we know that hers is a loss that can never be eased. Through the years of this case I have come to respect and admire Jennifer a great deal. Her courage and grace under such crippling circumstances has been inspiring.
I have also carried with me my initial anger. It is appalling to me that Ellyn’s parents would so sully her memory, her life, and her intentions in this way. I do not know how they live with themselves. What assuages that anger is knowing that every day, the toxic attitudes and monstrous behavior of people like them diminishes.
Jennifer’s victory is groundbreaking, and hers won’t be the last.
To Jennifer and Ellyn,
Kate Kendell, Esq.
NCLR Executive Director
P.S. You can read more about Jennifer and Ellyn’s love story here.