Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Legal Co-Equal: A Solution For Everyone

Legal Co-Equals (L.Co-E)

By Steven A. Sylwester
November 11, 2009

The following proposes a universal change to American law that would effectively move the desired status of those who want to share their personal rights with another person to a new neutral ground that is inclusive of all adult citizens to the benefit of the general society. As a result, the current debate that rages in America over marriage and its rights could become moot, because the essential demand for an inclusive change would be met by this proposal. However, just as importantly, the long-time historical definition of marriage would remain fully intact as is for those to whom it matters.


At age 18 (or whenever legal adulthood is defined by marriage, emancipation, or state law), every adult citizen of the United States shall be allowed to designate one other adult U.S. citizen as his/her Legal Co-Equal (L.Co-E). The L.Co-E designation shall be legally binding throughout the U.S., and shall be placed on a confidential registry maintained by the U.S. Social Security offices. Police agencies, the courts, and all licensed hospitals and medical centers shall have access to the registry at all times, and shall be given sufficient identifiers to verify the status of anyone who claims to be a L.Co-E.

Every adult citizen shall be entitled to name just one L.Co-E, but any one person might be the designated L.Co-E for many others. For example, a parent might be the mutually designated L.Co-E for a spouse, and also the designated L.Co-E for several of his/her adult children and for his/her widowed mother and for his/her childhood best friend. No one can be designated the L.Co-E for another except by agreed upon notarized consent, and L.Co-E designations can be ended at any time by either party without legal recourse. L.Co-E designation is rightly thought of as a gift, not a contract.

Furthermore, L.Co-E designations are one-directional, meaning the person making the designation is entitling the designated other to his/her personal rights without necessarily receiving the same entitlements in return. Though most people who co-habit will probably choose to share mutual L.Co-E designations with each other, they shall not be required to do so by law.

A person’s L.Co-E could be any adult: a spouse or life partner, a friend, a parent, a child, a sibling, a distant relative, an acquaintance, a co-worker, a neighbor, someone of the same sex, someone of the opposite sex — anyone who is an adult U.S. citizen. There is no expectation whatsoever that a person’s L.Co-E is someone with whom physical intimacies are shared. L.Co-E designations do not concern sexuality or the expression of sexuality, do not suggest or in any way require co-habitation or an obligation to physical intimacy, and do not refer to love or exclusive fidelity in legal documentation; L.Co-E designation is something legal: it is without emotion and without any religious affiliations, allegiances, or beliefs whatsoever.

L.Co-E designation is not the equivalent of being legally married. For example, L.Co-E designation will not entitle someone to group health insurance benefits. Also, L.Co-E designation will not entitle someone to yearly tax benefits. But the L.Co-E benefits that shall exist from the start are many, and are substantial in some cases. Also, more benefits could be added over time because the L.Co-E mechanism will be in place to easily accommodate new benefits that are deemed reasonable and desired by the populace.

L.Co-E designation shall have these benefit rights:

1. Confidential privacy rights that cannot be broken by court order or legal summons, meaning L.Co-E designation absolutely protects someone from being made to testify in court or in deposition against his/her L.Co-E.
2. First-in-line direct inheritance rights in the absence of an overriding legal will, meaning L.Co-E designation grants full unshared and uncontestable inheritance rights in the case of someone dying without a will, including the right to pension benefits that are not limited to a surviving spouse.
3. Automatic full power of attorney in the case of either temporary or permanent mental incapacity in the absence of an overriding power of attorney document, meaning L.Co-E designation automatically grants all power of attorney rights necessary for legal decision-making when mental incapacitation occurs.
4. Automatic guardianship rights regarding an orphaned minor child in the absence of a will that designates a guardian when there is no surviving biological parent who makes a claim to parental rights, meaning L.Co-E designation automatically grants indisputable guardianship rights regarding an orphaned child who is either a biological child or an adopted child when a legal parent dies. The guardianship is not legal adoption, though the guardianship rights shall include first-refusal rights concerning a legal adoption of the orphaned child.
5. Hospital visitation rights that are the equivalent of the hospital visitation rights now given to the closest family members, meaning L.Co-E designation grants hospital visitation rights that are only superseded by the rights of a physician and any accompanying medical personnel to be alone with the patient, and by the rights of a hospital to establish visiting hours.
6. Medical decision making rights in the absence of any overriding legal documents that grant those rights to others, meaning L.Co-E designation grants rights of approval and disapproval for all physician-recommended treatments and procedures when the patient is incapacitated, including operations and the stopping of life supports. Also, L.Co-E designation grants the right to voice physician directives according to the will of the incapacitated patient.
7. After life decision making rights in the absence of an overriding legal will that describes after-life directives, meaning L.Co-E designation grants the rights to decide on burial or cremation in every regard and respect if someone else has not been designated to make those decisions and if those decisions were left unmade by the deceased.

L.Co-E designation does not pertain in any way to contractual obligations of any sort, including purchase agreements and/or debt obligations of any type. L.Co-E designation does not create co-signer obligations or any other financial obligations in any circumstance. If two people who share mutual L.Co-E designations enter into financial agreements of any sort together, those contracts exist and are made outside of any L.Co-E benefit rights, and do not pertain to their L.Co-E designations in any way. Clearly, this distinction in part describes what separates spousal rights from L.Co-E rights.

In this age we now live in where most people are employed outside the home, L.Co-E designations might be sufficient replacements for marriage certificates for many couples. The seven benefit rights described above are not necessarily the only rights granted by L.Co-E designations, but they are the basic rights from which other more specific rights would originate.

Though L.Co-E designations will likely replace legal marriage relationships in many cases, the intent is certainly not to end marriage as a social institution. Nor is the intent to create a separate-but-equal opportunity for same-sex couples. Very specifically and very importantly, L.Co-E designations are for all adult U.S. citizens, including those who are single and unattached.

The fight for same-sex marriage has unwittingly made it socially acceptable to discriminate against those who are single, either by choice or because they are unable to find a mate. Why should the L.Co-E designation benefit rights described above be limited to couples? Answer: They should not. Every adult U.S. citizen — married, coupled, single, divorced, or widowed — deserves the personal dignity that would be legally granted by a L.Co-E designation: everyone deserves one unpaid confidant to whom every secret can be told and upon whom every blessing can be bestowed without the interference of the courts and/or the reappearance of unwelcome family members who have become estranged.

Ultimately, adults are entitled to autonomy, and to the personal sovereignty of their own choosing — and that choosing should be as easy as signing one notarized document granting Legal Co-Equal designation to another adult. The inherent good to the general society of this proposal cannot be overstated. Certainly, the various police agencies, the courts, and all licensed hospitals and medical centers would sing its praises, as would most single people and all same-sex couples. The proposal does not attack the institution of marriage in any way. Rather, it augments marriage by ensuring to married couples in a simple fashion some rights that are now best ensured by expensive attorney interventions.

Establishing Legal Co-Equal designations is not the last answer, but it might be the first answer for those who want to reorder American society to achieve a greater common good. Defiant same-sex marriage proponents might fight against it, but they would be wrong to do so. Defiant traditional marriage defenders might too fight against it, but they too would be wrong to do so. The proposal discriminates against no one while benefiting everyone, which is the stuff of God’s grace — and who can be against that?