The late Ron Coates

Viewpoint: Activist's death teaches vital lessons

By Rudy Serra

In life, Ron Coates was a dedicated educator and a committed volunteer of the Triangle Foundation. He organized and ran monthly fundraisers at The Detroit Eagle, helping to make the bar one of the largest contributors to the Triangle Foundation. He invested a lifetime teaching in the Detroit Public Schools at the Catherine Blackwell Institute (a highly-rated magnet school). When his partner, Wayne, was disabled by a stroke, Ron became the primary caregiver, just as he had for his elderly mother before.

In death, Ron Coates continues to teach lessons about LGBT rights and the importance of marriage equality. LGBT couples must take extraordinary actions to protect one another when death occurs. Ron put off those steps, leading to unnecessary tragedy.

Over a month after he was found dead, Ron's body is still being held by the Wayne County Medical Examiner as of early October. Since he died Sept. 10 from heart disease without a will, those whom he loved have no authority to claim his remains - including his partner. His property may soon belong to the state.

The New York Times recently revealed that LGBT couples can incur nearly a half million dollars in costs not faced by straight couples because they cannot marry. The cost of having wills, health care powers of attorney and other important estate-planning documents is small in comparison to the cost of not having them.

LGBT people who do not take steps to write a will, and to make other advance plans risk awful consequences. Ron was exuberant about life. He did not want to deal with sickness and death.It is important that LGBT people not put off important steps to protect their loved ones.

If a person dies without a will, the "law of intestate succession" decides who gets their property. Under this law, a surviving spouse is first in line. Since Michigan disavows all same-sex relationships, LGBT people are completely disenfranchised.

After the spouse, your surviving children get your property. Adopted children qualify, but Michigan erects multiple barriers to block LGBT couples from adopting. After children, it's parents, and after them, siblings get your property. The law can allow grandparents, uncles and aunts and other biological family to inherit but, eventually, if no such family members are found, the state of Michigan eventually owns everything you owned at death.

To die without a will is to have no control over who gets everything you worked for. Ron Coates was an only child, as were both his parents. He had no children, no siblings and his parents and grandparents are all gone. Since his home was in his own name, his partner, Wayne, has no claim and no home. Since they could not marry, Wayne cannot even claim Ron's body or his personal property. An Assistant Attorney General has been assigned to handle Ron's estate on behalf of the state.

Like most states, Michigan will honor a will that a person drafts in their own hand-writing and signs. It is called a "holographic will." For a fee, individuals can get a lawyer to draft their will and they can even file it in advance with the county clerk for safe-keeping. This helps avoid questions about authenticity.

In addition to a last will and testament, LGBT couples should provide one another with living wills and durable powers of attorney for health care. Without them, your partner can be denied the right to visit you in the hospital, and can be excluded from participating in making life-saving medical decisions. Since wills are usually only read after someone dies, it's a good idea to put your preferences for organ donation, cremation, burial, memorial services and so on in documents that will be read while you are still alive (such as a living will).

Wills only control what happens after you die. Everyone must face the prospect that they will be alive but disabled for a period of time. A general rurable power of attorney authorizes a trusted person (like your partner) to write and cash checks, access bank accounts and do other business on your behalf while you are still alive but unable to do so yourself.

A memorial has not yet been arranged for Ron Coates. A memorial Triangle event at The Detroit Eagle has been mentioned. Thanks to friends and neighbors, a memorial page has been set up on Facebook. To visit, go to http://www.facebook.com/posted.php?id=1389333781&share_id=144716411995&comments=1&s144716411995=#/group.php?gid=163144511671&ref=mf.

Rudy Serra was a judge with the 36th District Court and now works as an attorney out of Ferndale. To contact him, call 313-331-7839.
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