Achieving LGBT Equality Through Litigation, Legislation, Policy, and Public Education

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Elder Law Project Overview

Whether navigating end-of-life issues, selecting a safe assisted-living facility, or simply drafting a will, LGBT seniors are entitled to full equality, access to services, and basic protections and access to information and resources to make critical decisions.

In 1999, NCLR was the first LGBT legal organization to launch a permanent Elder Law Project as the first wave of baby boomers became senior citizens. The Elder Law Project advocates for policies and legislation to protect the medical and financial rights of LGBT elders, and educates the professionals (health care providers, lawyers, case workers) who are charged with assisting them. We also ensure that LGBT seniors have the resources and information they need to access the rights that are currently available to them.

NCLR’s Elder Law Project collaborates with legal experts to identify where the law falls short for LGBT seniors, attends important national events on aging policy, and further works to advocate for and remedy the legal landscape for LGBT seniors. By making the needs of LGBT seniors visible, we show the public that every generation includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals who deserve to live out their "golden years" with dignity, respect, and comfort.

elder law project | history

Launched in 1999, NCLR’s Elder Law Project seeks to bring greater visibility and voice to LGBT elders and to educate the legal, medical, and social services professionals who work with them. Now a full-time legal and advocacy program of NCLR, the Elder Law Project empowers LGBT elders to protect themselves and fights for equal treatment of LGBT elders in policies, laws, programs, and services for aging Americans.

elder law project | major accomplishments

The Elder Law Project has successfully represented clients seeking equality in retirement home care and made huge strides to ensure that senior care professionals understand the needs of LGBT seniors. We’ve been a leader in advocating for LGBT aging issues on both the state and national levels. And we have consistently helped to inform policy decisions that affect America’s aging population.

elder law project | how we can help

NCLR’s Elder Law Project:

  • Empowers LGBT senior citizens (age 55+), their advocates, and their activists with free legal support and resources
  • Advocates for policies and legislation that protect and support LGBT elders
  • Trains local, regional, and national professionals in the aging services network on legal protections for LGBT elders through workshops and comprehensive materials
  • Increases the visibility of our older LGBT generation by collaborating on a national level with elder service providers
  • Establishes legal protections and access to critically needed health and social services, including retirement housing, long term care facilities, and elder abuse

Please contact NCLR today if you are:

  • Closeted and/or afraid to ask for help
  • At-risk of elder abuse, domestic violence, emotional abuse, and/or financial abuse
  • Concerned for your safety in a retirement center, assisted living, or nursing home
  • Afraid of letting your health care provider know your sexual orientation and/or gender identity
  • Hospitalized and your partner has been denied visitation
  • Living alone and do not have a will/health care directive, and are in need of legal assistance
  • Being harassed or ostracized at a senior center
  • Isolated and would like to connect with other LGBT elders
  • Disabled and need in-home support services
  • In need of transportation and home-delivered meals

case study | Burrows v. ILWU

Marvin and Bill were together for more than fifty years.

They did everything in their power to demonstrate their commitment to each other and to provide for the surviving partner in the event of one partner's death, including registering as domestic partners. Bill worked as a warehouse crew leader for more than 35 years. Throughout his employment, he was a member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and contributed to their pension plan. When Bill unexpectedly passed away in March 2005, Marvin submitted a claim for Bill's Pension benefits. Despite their long-term relationship and registration as domestic partners, the ILWU initially rejected Burrows' claim and denied him of what millions of Americans are entitled to every year. As a result, Marvin lost his home of 35 years and was financially destitute.

Marvin and Bill’s story is unfortunately increasingly all-too-common, as a significant portion of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community grows older. In most cases, a surviving heterosexual spouse would automatically be entitled to his or her spouse’s retirement and pension benefits. For the vast majority of same-sex couples, however, this protection does not exist.

Fortunately, the ILWU examined their policies in order to be more inclusive of all workers. NCLR, with the assistance of attorney Teresa Renaker, filed an appeal. After a two year process, the local chapter of the ILWU changed its policy to provide equal pension benefits to surviving domestic partners. The union also made this change retroactive to March 2005, ensuring that Marvin will receive all of Bill’s benefits.

As we age, medical and financial decisions become both more important and more difficult, and being LGBT adds enormous additional obstacles for most people. NCLR is committed to changing both society and the law to give LGBT elders equal dignity, protection, and respect. In the meantime, we are working to provide LGBT elders with the information and resources they need to protect themselves, their partners, and their children.

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