Posted Jul 02, 2009 01:00 am CDT
It was the 2004 election, and Lindalisa Severo was distressed. The Atlanta lawyer and gay rights activist was disturbed by the number of anti-gay-marriage amendments on state ballots (including in her own state of Georgia) and thought other gays and lesbians were being systematically denied legal rights available to the general population.
So she got the idea to start an online service where the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community could turn to have legal documents prepared—everything from living wills to parenting agreements to powers of attorney.
Her idea was to have an easy and affordable way for gays and lesbians to fill out forms online without having to visit a lawyer. She realized that while same-sex couples in big cities may feel comfortable visiting lawyers, those in smaller, rural or conservative towns might not. She also wanted the service to be affordable.
In addition to document preparation, LegalOut offers document storage and sharing, news blogs, links to petitions and other activist sites, and a referral network of lawyers sympathetic to LGBT causes.
The service costs $20 a month or $120 annually for unlimited document preparation, with the first document free.
“I felt like if they weren’t recognized by the law, at least legally same-sex couples could be tied together,” says Severo. “I’ve heard horror stories of one of the partners passing away and the family taking the house and leaving the other partner with nothing.
“If you’re not protected as an LGBT couple, you could really lose a lot.”
Even in states that don’t ban same-sex marriage, same-sex couples often lack the right to visit hospitalized partners, to make health care decisions for ill partners or to assume community property when partners die. They also may have no clear-cut separation or parenting-rights agreements.
LegalOut is one of several online legal documentation services that have sprung up in the last few years. Pink Legal offers similar services in the United Kingdom. RocketLawyer.com and Rainbow Law Center do so in the United States.
Many of the services, like LegalOut, are state-specific: The online form asks which state you live in, then guides you to specific questions based on that state’s laws.
Jennifer Pizer, senior counsel for Lambda Legal in Los Angeles, says such services are needed, particularly in rural or conservative areas. “Lawyers often closet themselves and clients often closet themselves,” she says. Lambda Legal is a civil rights organization that represents gay causes in the courts.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, many LGBT individuals have lower incomes than those of heterosexuals. And the fact that LegalOut is affordable is particularly vital, Pizer says.
While Pizer advocates permanent changes to anti-gay laws, she recommends individuals prepare legal documents in the short term to protect themselves.
“Everyone can have a will prepared, prepare a health-care advance directive and power of attorney papers,” she says. “The law refuses to recognize that we exist, so yes, there is an extra degree of need.”
A Congressional Budget Office study discusses 1,138 federal statutory provisions affected by marital status.