Guest Opinion: Together forever? Think again

  • by Bob Hughes
  • Wednesday August 16, 2023
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Rob, who died in June, left, and his partner, Bob Hughes, posed for a photo at the beginning of their partnership in Florida. Photo: Courtesy Bob Hughes
Rob, who died in June, left, and his partner, Bob Hughes, posed for a photo at the beginning of their partnership in Florida. Photo: Courtesy Bob Hughes

I thought in 2023 this couldn't happen. In the past, partners I personally knew, who wanted to be with each other forever, were ripped apart upon death by families who exercised their right to do so. During the horrifying days of AIDS it happened over and over. But in 2023? Yes, it can happen. If you don't leave your wishes in a properly drawn up will that's easy to find, you better believe it can happen.

My partner Rob died on June 30. (His last name is being withheld for privacy reasons.) We had been together for a remarkable 35 years, and shared 22 years of it here in San Francisco. But Rob had a severely damaged heart as a result of childhood Hodgkin's disease. Radiation cured the Hodgkin's but damaged his internal organs in the insidious slow way radiation kills. His fourth heart operation, on July 5, 2022, left him hospitalized for 360 days before he just gave up. He decided to withhold his life-saving treatments and medications and move on.

On his final day he decided he was up for a last Zoom call so he could say goodbye to his sister's family in New York, and his brother and his family in Florida. Rob was tired and hurting, but he didn't want to show it and he joked with his nephews and said all his goodbyes. Finally he said, "That's it ... I need to go." At which point his brother pointedly said, "you can't go yet, what's going to happen to your body?" Rob answered back what he and I had often discussed, he wanted to be cremated and his ashes spread over San Francisco Bay. The family, however, wouldn't have it and started an argument over what they wanted done, and in the end Rob, tired and hurting, said, "Fine, just let me go." But I knew the importance of our being together and piped up, "We need to be together when I pass." Rob held my hand for the very last time and shook his head in agreement with a wan smile on his face — his very last smile. His brother said, "I don't know about that. I'll have to look into that." I offered to convert to Judaism if need be, knowing that in this Conservative Jewish cemetery there might be rules against burials of non-Jews. But during the watch over Rob through his final hours deep in a terminal sleep, his brother said it couldn't happen.

And since there was no will, in the state of California the family has more say than a partner of over 35 years. And what they wanted was to have his body flown back to Florida, the state from which we came and felt very alienated from, and buried in a small cemetery far from the ocean. And so it happened. They even acted surprised when I flew back to the Sunshine State to attend the service, treating me like somewhat of a distant, not wholly-approved-of relative.

You see, Rob never really believed in the idea of marriage. He thought of it as something that heterosexuals needed that we didn't. When he got really sick following his last operation, I proposed to him. He finally was ready to say, "I do," but it was to happen after he got out of the hospital, which he never did. I didn't push the matter after a cousin of Rob's who is an attorney said that I could be accused of taking advantage of an ill man if any legal difficulties came up later.

Lo and behold a will was found 17 days after Rob died. It was found in a filing cabinet in a sealed manila envelope on which Rob wrote, "Important Legal Papers." It was written 31 years earlier and forgotten. It named me not only as Rob's executor but also the beneficiary of some of the things his family grabbed. Along with it was a legal paper declaring a domestic partnership, which was notarized but not filed with the city or state. If I would have known where it was, or Rob could have told me with all his pains and medical issues, this wouldn't have happened.

There was still time to reverse many of the actions of his brother and sister's joint actions as co-executors, but no way to, practically speaking, bring Rob home for what he really wanted, to spend forever mingling with me in the sparkling waters of San Francisco Bay.

Don't let it happen to you. If you care about what takes place after you die, the only way to make sure it happens is to have a legally written last will and testament. If you're not married and you want your partner to continue to be an important part of your life when you get sick, you need to have a domestic partnership form notarized and filed with either the city or state, or even better with both. Some people act like they'll live forever, but I wouldn't bet on it. Don't be like Rob and I, with him in a small cemetery across the country in Florida while I have all of San Francisco Bay.

Bob Hughes is a gay longtime San Francisco resident. August is National Make-A-Will Month. For more information, click here or contact an estate planning attorney. This piece is not considered legal advice.

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