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Extended family benefits

The president signs the Michal Judge Act, which has the effect of paying federal death benefits to “partners” of unmarried policemen and firemen, while New York City considers giving effect to homosexual unions registered in Vermont and California. It’s “simply the right thing to do,” says the City Council speaker.

The Judge Act can be distinguished from the NYC proposal, because all it does is make the benefit payable to beneficiaries the deceased had listed on his life insurance policy. In the case of the reputedly homosexual and certainly unmarried Fr. Judge, for example, it will go to his two sisters. Still, it’s not clear the principle is different.

After all, why would Congress want to increase the size of someone’s estate as a goal in itself, without reference to helping those who stand in some special relation to him?

The argument for many of the moves toward recognizing nonmarital domestic partnerships is fairness: two sisters could live together, pool their resources and support each other as much as a husband and wife do. Why not recognize the loss one incurs when the other dies? And if that’s done, why not do the same if they aren’t sisters but nonetheless view each other as life partners?

A difficulty of the argument is that if privileging certain stereotypical relationships is unfair it’s hard to know where to begin and where to stop. After all, the original idea of family benefits is that the employee is a breadwinner and those at home rely on him for their economic well-being. That notion may still apply to children, but if the patriarchal family is a bad thing it’s not clear why it should go beyond that. After all, if a single mom gets married why should her employer have to put out more money on her behalf, as it will have to do when she adds her new husband to the health plan? And if a man wants to provide employee benefits to the woman he’s sleeping with and who cooks his meals and looks after his children, why shouldn’t he have to pay for them? Why do they have to come—in effect—out of the pocket of employees who live alone and so can’t use that part of the compensation package?

Benefits for families of employees are inextricably connected to the notion of honoring and supporting family life. In the case of the Michal Judge Act to say it’s unfair to pay the death benefit only to parents, children and spouses, and not just give it to anyone the deceased happens to have listed as beneficiary on his life insurance policy, is ridiculous. And to say it’s unfair not to pay it to live-in girlfriends or homosexual partners is to say that such relationships should be honored and supported equally with the relation of husband to wife or parent to child. And that, for different reasons, is also ridiculous.

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