When the US Supreme Court ruled that states could not ban gay marriage earlier this year, it did more than just given them access to marriage certificates. The legal designation of "spouse" opens LGBT couples up to rights and benefits in many areas of the law. That includes Michigan no-fault auto law and third-party negligence actions.
The Resident Relative Provision
Michigan law provides for no fault auto insurance coverage for passengers even if they do not carry individual auto insurance policies. While the first recourse is always a person's own insurance, if she is uninsured, she can look to her immediate family. Pursuant to MCL 500.3114, an auto insurance policy "applies to accidental bodily injury to the person named in the policy, the person's spouse, and a relative of either domiciled in the same household, if the injury arises from a motor vehicle accident."
Before the decision in Obergefell v Hodges, if a gay man was injured he would not be able to turn to his partner's insurance policy for help. Even if they had been married in one of the many states that had legalized same-sex marriage prior to the court ruling, Michigan would not recognize his partner as his legal spouse.
This result was particularly harsh when it came to the children of those uninsured gay residents. Under Michigan law, if two men or two women wanted to raise a child together, only one of them could be the legal parent. Whether this was by way of natural child birth using a donor or adoption, Michigan would only grant parental rights to, and therefore the child could only benefit from, one legal mother or father within the couple.
Imagine a case where Joe and Tom are raising Lily, who is Joe's biological daughter. Until Obergefell, there was no way for Tom to become a legal father to Lily. Now imagine that Joe is not insured but Tom is. If Lily were in a car accident, she would not be able to receive benefits from Tom's insurance policy as a resident relative. Instead the claim would progress down the order of priority to the owner of the vehicle in which she was riding.
Now that the court has required states to grant marriage certificates to gay couples and recognize the same-sex marriages celebrated elsewhere, the Joes and Lilys in Michigan can take advantage of spousal benefits and resident relative benefits of their loved ones' insurance policies. All they need to do to cement protection for their family is get married.
The Legal Significance of a Spouse
A person's spouse has a lot more rights than just auto insurance benefits, though. Under negligence law, a spouse can be the next friend of an incapacitated individual and file suit on his or her behalf. This means that, continuing with the same example, if Tom were to suffer a traumatic brain injury and be unable to file a lawsuit on his own, under Obergefell, Joe is now authorized to file it for him.
Before, as a legal stranger, Joe would have had to turn to Tom's family members for help. Because of the social stigma and the beliefs of certain religions, many members of the LGBT community are not able to rely on their biological family to help them. For this very reason, gay and lesbian couples will often go through added burden and expense to name their partners as health care decision makers. But that does not affect the partner's legal standing to bring suit on behalf of the injured person. The partners need to be legally married to do that.
Spousal Benefits in Third Party Cases
If the injuries resulting from a car accident are serious enough to allow a Third Party lawsuit against the at-fault driver, being the legal spouse of that injured person becomes even more important. That is because spouses have access to a special class of non-economic damages: loss of consortium (or companionship). This damage claim legitimizes the lost emotional and physical support that couples provide one another.
Before Obergefell, if a woman in a same-sex partnership was severely injured, the support she provided to her partner would go unrecognized and uncompensated. The couple would be treated as legal strangers. Once that lesbian couple is legally allowed to marry, however, they are also allowed all of the litigation awards traditionally available to spouses.
Spousal Benefits in Wrongful Death Cases
The most tragic of auto accident cases involve estates, not injured parties. Just like in incapacity cases, the natural person to bring a wrongful death action on behalf of a person's estate is his or her spouse (unless a different personal representative is identified in estate planning documents). No matter how many assets a gay couple owns jointly—homes, cars, boats, even bank accounts—the surviving partner will not have any authority to file a wrongful death action without either a personal representative designation or the legal identity of "spouse."
If a same-sex couple does marry (or their out-of-state marriage is recognized under Obergefell), and an accident later takes one partner's life, the surviving spouse can move forward with a wrongful death action to recover his or her spouse's medical expenses, funeral and burial costs, and non-economic pain and suffering awards. The spouse is also entitled to certain survivor benefits including loss of financial support in the form of lost wages. All of these rights are connected to the word "spouse" and were not available to same-sex couples in Michigan just a few months ago.
Protecting the Family Under Obergefell
The Plaintiffs in Obergefell, and its Michigan counterpart DeBoer v Snyder (which was consolidated into the Supreme Court case), were not just suing for dignity and equality. The lawsuit that changed the way this nation defines marriage was not just about a label. It was about the thousands of state and federal rights that connect to the word "spouse." The Obergefell decision said the state law protections for families and children were "material." Justice Kennedy wrote:
"By giving recognition and legal structure to their parents' relationship, marriage allows children 'to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives.' Marriage also affords the permanency and stability important to children’s best interests."
Under Michigan auto law, that stability comes in part from a child’s ability to collect benefits from both parents and for the child's surviving parent to be able to go to court to recover damages available only to a spouse.
As family lawyers, magistrates and ministers across the Michigan do the hard work of legalizing and legitimizing the committed relationships of thousands of LGBT couples living in Michigan, auto accident attorneys need to be aware of the effect of this decision on the lives of their clients. By being clear on the rights of same-sex spouses and inquiring into the details of their clients' marital history, car accident lawyers can better protect clients and their families from missing out on important spousal benefits and survivor damage claims based on legal marital or parental status.
David Christensen is an experienced personal injury attorney with Christensen Law in Southfield, Michigan. He specializes in helping victims with traumatic brain injury from motor vehicle accidents.
Suggested Citation: David Christensen Gay Marriage and Michigan No-Fault Spousal Benefits, JURIST - Professional Commentary, September 29, 2015, http://jurist.org/professional/2015/david-christensen-spousal-benefits.php.