Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

September 18,  2006  



Elderly sisters fight British death tax

By Thomas F. Coleman


Two elderly sisters are upset because, if one of them dies, the other will have to sell the house they have lived in all of their lives in order to pay a hefty British death tax.  A surviving spouse would pay no inheritance tax, nor would a surviving same-sex partner registered under the nation's new civil partnership act.

Joyce Burden and her sister Sybil, both in their eighties, never married.  Instead they chose a life on the family farm helping their parents and enjoying each other's company. 

The family home, which they jointly inherited five years ago, is now worth about 875,000 British pounds.  The death tax would be about 236,000 pounds, and neither of them has that kind of money.  So when one of them dies, the other will have to sell the house in order to pay the tax.

British law exempts only two kinds of relationships -- surviving spouses and surviving same-sex partners -- from inheritance taxes.  Blood relatives are prohibited from registering their relationship in either of these categories.

The sisters believe that British law unfairly excludes them from an inheritance tax exemption.  So they have taken their case to the European Court of Human Rights. 

Their lawyer is arguing that British inheritance tax laws violate their right to enjoy their property under the first protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights, in addition to the anti-discrimination provisions of Article 14.

"If we were a lesbian couple, we would not be facing massive inheritance bills," Joyce, 88, told the Evening Standard newspaper.  "This is an insult to single people who have looked after elderly parents."

Unmarried blood relatives living together in Canada and the United States are in predicament similar to that of the Burden sisters.  They aren't afforded the benefits allowed by state and federal laws governing marriage, and state laws creating rights for two adults registered in a civil union or domestic partnership generally exclude blood relatives.

Canada is beginning to acknowledge this issue.  A 2001 report from the Law Commission of Canada, “Beyond Conjugality: Recognizing & Supporting Close Personal Adult Relationships,” recommended that Parliament pass new laws to equally honor and support all caring and interdependent relationships, not just married couples or same-sex partners.

In the United States, Census data show that a growing number of adult siblings are living together.  In 2000, about 733,000 adults lived with a brother or sister in a household that did not include a parent.

To my knowledge, only one state and one local government allow blood relatives to participate in registration systems which convey benefits to registered adults.  Hawaii has a reciprocal beneficiary procedure and the District of Columbia has a domestic partnership registry. 

I recall when a domestic partnership registry was close to becoming a reality in the State of California.  I met briefly with Antonio Villaraigosa, then Speaker of the State Assembly, and asked him to support a registry that would include any two unmarried adults who met specific criteria.  I argued that it was unfair to exclude blood relatives.

Although he told me that he agreed with my argument, he soon changed his mind, and the proposal passed with a blood-relative exclusion.   I was informed that gay rights lobbying groups insisted that domestic partnership should mimic marriage.  Since marriage excludes blood relatives, the same should apply to domestic partnership. 

Almost all public and private employers with domestic partner benefits programs exclude blood relatives.  A few businesses, however, have adopted a policy of inclusion and allow blood relatives to participate in their benefits plans.

Bank of America was the first to do this when it adopted an "extended family" benefits program in 1998.  Merrill Lynch launched a similar plan for its employees in 1999.  Nationwide Insurance began offering a "household benefits" package in 2000.

These few private benefits programs and government registries show that benefits and legal protections don't have to be tied to marriage or marriage substitutes.  They can be made available to everyone, including blood relatives. 

Economic benefits and legal protections do not have to be limited to relationships which involve sexual intimacy.  Why should sexual relationships be elevated above all others?

I salute the Burden sisters for their courage and conviction.  Whether they win or lose their case in the European Court of Human Rights, these two women have raised an issue which needs to be addressed, not only in Europe and in North America, but everywhere. 

© Unmarried America 2006

Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.  Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.