Jennifer Tobits and Sarah Ellyn Farley married in Toronto in 2006. Two weeks after their wedding, Ellyn was diagnosed with cancer. The Chicago couple fought the disease together for their entire marriage, until Ellyn passed away in September 2010. Because Ellyn’s parents had never accepted her marriage to Jennifer, they feared that Ellyn’s parents would make legal claims to their property and generally attack Jennifer’s status as Ellyn’s spouse.
Shortly after Ellyn’s death, those fears came true. Ellyn’s parents filed a petition in Illinois probate court to take over the administration of Ellyn’s estate, telling the court that their daughter had “never married” and that they, not Jennifer, were her heirs. Jennifer filed a cross-petition defending her status as Ellyn’s surviving spouse under Illinois law. Illinois recognizes marriages between same-sex couples as civil unions, which includes the right to be treated as a surviving spouse when one partner dies.
Ellyn’s parents also told her employer, Cozen O’Connor, that they should receive their daughter’s death benefits under the firm’s profit-sharing plan because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Cozen O’Connor filed an action in the federal district court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to determine whether Jennifer or Ellyn’s parents should receive the benefits.
After bitter fights in both states, Jennifer prevailed and is fully recognized as Ellyn’s surviving spouse.
On September 25, 2012, the Illinois probate court closed the estate. In a complete victory for Jennifer, she was recognized as Ellyn’s sole heir and legal representative. The probate court ruled that Jennifer was entitled to be treated the same as any other spouse under Illinois law, and that Ellyn’s parents had no right to interfere with her status as spouse. On September 26, 2012, the federal district court in Pennsylvania ordered that the case involving Ellyn’s profit sharing plan be put temporarily on hold while the United States Supreme Court considers several cases asking it to strike down DOMA as unconstitutional.
Similarly, on July 29, 2013, the federal district court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that Jennifer must be recognized as Ellyn’s spouse under the terms of Ellyn’s employer-sponsored profit-sharing plan. Relying on the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in United States v. Windsor striking down DOMA, the district court 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 decision makes clear that federal law protects all spouses equally, regardless of sex.
NCLR represented Jennifer in both the Pennsylvania and Illinois cases, together with Jerner & Palmer P.C., and Lewis, Feinberg, Lee, Renaker & Jackson, P.C. in Pennsylvania; and Prather Ebner LLP and Kirkland & Ellis LLP in Illinois.