Sunday, February 11, 2007
The September 11 relief efforts present a unique prism through which to view the status of same-sex relationships and to consider which families count when the United States is supposedly at its most generous, most united, and most injured. On a basic human level, would the nation grieve for Peggy Neff, who lost her partner of 18 years when Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, as it had for the widow of a fire fighter? Would Neff be eligible to file a claim with the multi-billion dollar federal September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, which Congress established to compensate victims and their “relatives”? Or, consistent with state probate law, would Neff be considered a ‘mere stranger'? Would the Virginia state crime victim compensation board recognize Neff's claim as a surviving partner even though she did not otherwise qualify as a “spouse” or a dependent? And, what about the private charitable contributions, which within five weeks of the attacks exceeded $1 billion? Would such funds be distributed to surviving same-sex partners or would they, as Reverend Sheldon urged, be dispensed based on the “priority of one man and one woman in a marital relationship”?
This Article examines the status of surviving same-sex partners under the federal September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, the Virginia, New York, and Pennsylvania state crime victims compensation boards, and the Red Cross disaster guidelines. Because many of the positions taken by the different assistance programs reference or replicate existing laws, Part II outlines the treatment of surviving same-sex partners in the three areas of law most directly relevant to the survivors of the victims of the September 11 attacks: probate law, employment-related survivor death benefits, and wrongful death actions. Part III discusses the federal Victim Compensation Fund. Part IV compares the disparate policies of the three state victim compensation boards with regard to the recognition of same-sex surviving partners. Part V describes the guidelines adopted by the Red Cross which embrace an expansive definition of family.