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Update on LGBT family law

D.C. area features wide array of legal protections

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gay family, gay news, Washington Blade
gay family, LGBT family law, gay news, Washington Blade

(Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The last several years have seen an incredible change in laws affecting LGBT families in the Washington metropolitan area, and we may see more changes on the federal level in the next several months. Here is a synopsis of laws affecting same-sex headed families in the D.C. area.

Federal level

The Supreme Court will hear arguments on two marriage equality cases, Hollingsworth v. Perry and Windsor v. United States on March 26 and 27, and we expect decisions from the court by June 30 of this year. Those decisions could be anything from the court saying that it won’t make substantive decisions in either of these cases, to establishing marriage equality as a constitutional right in the entire United States. Most court observers expect that the court will invalidate Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which would mean that marriage equality for federal purposes would be determined on a state by state (or jurisdiction) basis.  Section 3 defines “marriage” for all federal purposes as between one man and one woman. So, for us in the D.C. metro area, if Section 3 is invalidated, residents of Maryland and the District of Columbia would be considered married for federal purposes, but residents of Virginia would not. There are more than 1,000 rights and responsibilities associated with marriage on the federal level, so federal recognition of our marriages would be huge. Stay tuned!

District of Columbia

The District has had marriage equality since March 9, 2010. There are more than 400 rights and responsibilities associated with marriage for District residents. D.C. residents can still register as domestic partners instead of getting married, but the domestic partnership has little, if any, effect outside the District. There is no residency requirement to marry in the District or register as domestic partners.

D.C. recently enacted a new law that allows couples who married in D.C. and live in a jurisdiction where neither can divorce, to come back to D.C. to get divorced. Of course, the couple should attempt to resolve all issues pertaining to their marriage so they can go forward with an uncontested divorce in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. This law is meant to help with the new meaning of “wedlock.”

The District enacted the Domestic Partnership Judicial Determination of Parentage Amendment Act on July 1, 2009. It provides that if a couple is married, registered as domestic partners in D.C., or signs a Consent to Parent, both members of the couple will be presumed to be legal parents of their child under D.C. law if the child is born in D.C. Both parents will be on the birth certificate at birth. Unfortunately, the law may not apply to gay male couples as surrogacy is illegal in the District. The Parentage Act has been amended to allow adoptions in the District based on the birth of the child in D.C., and the amendments are retroactive to July 1, 2009. The law means that a lesbian couple does not have to live in the District in order to obtain a second-parent adoption of their child that will be recognized outside the District of Columbia and on the federal level. This is a big step forward, especially for residents of Virginia who can give birth in D.C. Even with marriage equality, it is essential for couples to obtain second-parent adoptions as birth certificates alone do not confer parental rights, and legal rights to children flowing from marriage may not be recognized in many states, and currently, not by the federal government.

Maryland

Beginning Jan. 1, 2013, same-sex couples have been able to marry in Maryland. Marriages between same-sex couples from outside Maryland have been recognized in Maryland since May 18, 2012, after the decision in Port v. Cowan. Port required Maryland to allow a same-sex couple to divorce in Maryland. Married couples have more than 400 state-based rights and responsibilities. However, there are some issues relating to marriage equality in Maryland that still must be addressed. For example, the Maryland comptroller takes the position that Maryland imports the federal definition of marriage for income and estate tax purposes.

For families in Maryland headed by same-sex couples, a child born into the marriage will be considered the legal child of both parents. For married lesbian couples, both parents will be on the child’s birth certificate at birth. However, we are still working through issues for gay male couples who have children through gestational surrogacy.

Virginia

There has not been much change in Virginia in laws impacting our families, except to go backward. Virginia now allows adoption agencies to explicitly discriminate against LGBT families in placements for children to be adopted.

Second-parent adoptions are not available in Virginia, not because they are specifically outlawed, but because of concerns that the Virginia Legislature may forbid these adoptions if they are attempted. However, in some Virginia counties same-sex couples may obtain a joint custody order of their children. Joint custody orders have been upheld by the Virginia courts.  These orders can be problematic though as they allow both parents to have custody, but only one parent to have responsibility for child support if the couple separates. In addition, the Commonwealth of Virginia may have a say in whether the couple is fit and proper to have their child.

General

Before or after getting married, couples should seriously consider executing pre- or postnuptial agreements which specify their rights and responsibilities during their marriage and if they divorce.  These are particularly important for our families because of the many and varied laws governing marriage for same-sex couples. And, as always, couples and individuals should complete estate planning documents. These are vital in order to make our own decisions about who should inherit our property, make our health care decisions,  manage our finances, and, if we have children, who should take care of them if we can’t.

Michele Zavos is a principal in Zavos Juncker Law Group, PLLC, which practices LGBT family law in all three local jurisdictions. She is a long-time lesbian activist attorney and was the driving force behind the passage of the new D.C. divorce statute and amendments to the D.C. Parentage law.

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Real Estate

City inspection codes: How easy is it to fail?

Be sure to check ventilation, smoke detectors, and more

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Landlords are required to install and maintain smoke detectors in their rental properties.

In the District of Columbia, rental properties are required to meet certain health and safety standards. These standards are set by the District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA).

If you own a rental property in the District of Columbia, you may be required to have your property inspected by the DCRA to ensure that it meets these standards. The inspection process typically involves a DCRA inspector visiting the property and checking for any hazards or code violations.

It’s important to make sure that your property is in good condition and meets the District’s health and safety standards, as failing a rental property inspection can have serious consequences. If your property fails the inspection, you may be required to make repairs or upgrades in order to bring it into compliance. If you are unable to do so, you may be forced to stop renting out the property until the necessary repairs are made.

Overall, the likelihood of failing a rental property inspection in the District of Columbia will depend on the condition of your property and whether it meets the applicable health and safety standards. To minimize the risk of failing an inspection, it’s important to keep your property well maintained and address any potential hazards or code violations as soon as possible.

In the District of Columbia, landlords are responsible for maintaining their rental properties in a safe and habitable condition. If a rental property is not in compliance with the city’s health and safety standards, the landlord may be cited for code violations.

Some common code violations that landlords in the District of Columbia may be cited for include:

• Lack of adequate heating or ventilation: Landlords are required to provide sufficient heating and ventilation systems to ensure the health and safety of their tenants.

• Electrical or plumbing issues: Landlords are responsible for ensuring that their properties have functional electrical and plumbing systems. All plumbing fixtures must be properly sealed, in other words, no holes in the walls. All water heaters require pressure relief valves

Structural issues: Landlords must maintain their properties in a safe and structurally sound condition.

Pest infestations: Landlords are required to address and eliminate pest infestations in their rental properties.

Lack of smoke detectors: Landlords are required to install and maintain smoke detectors in their rental properties. Detectors must be placed 36” from ceiling fan blades and away from the path of the HVAC registers.

Proper locks: All exit and security gate locks must be easy to operate and must not require a key to exit.

It’s important for landlords in the District of Columbia to be aware of these and other code violations and take steps to ensure that their properties are in compliance with the city’s health and safety requirements.

Scott Bloom is senior property manager and owner, Columbia Property Management. For more information and resources, go to www.ColumbiaPM.com.

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Business

Canino Dog Boutique offers healthful food, accessories

Cati Sesana opens new store on Belmont Street in Northwest

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Cati Sesana owns Canino Dog Boutique at 1409 Belmont St., N.W. (Photo courtesy Sesana)

Cati Sesana was sitting at home trying to help her mom find a local shop in D.C. that would have a cute sweater for her dog but couldn’t find much outside of the big-box stores. Last month, she opened Canino Dog Boutique to solve the problem.

“I was like ‘Let me do some research,’ there are shops like this in New York but I don’t know of one in D.C.,” she said.  

However, Sesana had a long journey from researching the pet boutique business to her opening day. Sesana played water polo at George Washington University and majored in music, so she didn’t know much about starting a business. 

One of her first tasks was figuring out what she was going to sell. 

“Initially I was just going to do accessories or apparel and not treats or food,” she said. “But I got really deep into pet nutrition and what’s going to make your dog live the longest.”

She recalled the initial trouble she had with finding food for her dog, Aiko and wanted to eliminate that worry for her customers. 

“I only carry two dog food brands, so I kind of get rid of that overwhelming decision-making that’s like, ‘What do I do? What’s right for my dog?’ so I only carry brands I know and trust,” she said. 

As for her apparel and accessories, she only sells products from small and local shops that don’t have distribution in major retailers. One of the local shops Sesana purchases from told her that she was their first retailer and that since then, business has improved. 

“By shopping here, you’re helping other small businesses and it all kind of domino effects,” Sesana said. 

As a first-time business owner herself, Sesana knows all about the obstacles of trying to get a small business off the ground. 

 “The biggest challenge was finding a landlord that would give me an opportunity,” she said. 

Sesana visited spaces in a lot of high foot-traffic shopping areas, like Georgetown and met plenty of landlords who loved her concept but didn’t want a first-time business owner. 

“I think the pandemic scared landlords from giving smaller businesses a chance, because so many closed,” she said. “But then the personality of a neighborhood kind of disintegrates a lot. … Why would I come to 14th Street when I can shop from Lululemon online?”

Finally, Sesana was given a chance for a space just off of 14th Street on Belmont Street. Conveniently located next to Streets Market and across the street from Doozydog! Club.

On Nov. 6 she opened her doors and has worked every day since then. The store is open Monday through Friday, from 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 4-7 p.m. and on weekend 10:30 a.m. – 4 p.m. Sesana is currently the only employee. 

“I am the company graphic designer, customer service, and dog walker!” she said, motioning to her dog lying in his doggie bed. 

After Sesana closes the store, she is out into the night playing the drums in a band. 

She says that being a musician has given her the right mentality to get through the long days at her boutique. 

“Slow days are tough, but I can zoom out and see the bigger picture,” she said.

Canino Dog Boutique is located at 1409 Belmont St NW, Washington, DC 20009

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Real Estate

Top tax benefits of homeownership

Mortgage interest, property tax deductions, and more

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Thinking of buying a house? Here are some of the many tax advantages that come with homeownership.

As we are closing out 2023 and getting ready to start 2024, now is a good time to review what tax benefits most homeowners are getting. There are several categories that you can look at to see if you will benefit from being a homeowner. According to RocketMortgage.com, here are some of them:

  • Mortgage interest.  Most newer homeowners are paying more on the interest in their monthly mortgage payment than on the principal, so this could be a big tax benefit.
  • Home equity loan interest – HELOC (home equity line of credit) loans are like a 2nd mortgage on your home. Many homeowners can use it to make upgrades to their house and interest on these loans is deductible if you used it for that purpose.
  • Discount points – for those of you that purchased in the last year or so these may apply, as these are the price paid to lower an interest rate on a loan.
  • Property taxes – depending on where you live, your state and local property taxes may be a big source of tax deductions for you.
  • Necessary home improvements – even if you did not use a HELOC to improve your home, some of your expenses in this category may be deductible.
  • Home office expenses – as more and more people are working from home, this should not go unexamined in your search to find tax deductions.
  • Capital Gains – a capital gain is the difference between the value of a home when you sold it versus when you borrowed it. So, if you sold your home for a significant profit and did not roll over those gains into a new property within a short period of selling the old property, then ask your tax professional up to which amount of these profits are not taxable.

We asked Tina Del Casale ([email protected]), a DMV-area lender with Sandy Spring Bank, what she thought about the tax benefits of homeownership, and here is her answer:

“Most homeowners wish they knew sooner that most every major home improvement can reduce your future capital gains when you are ready to sell your home. While the deduction for a single person is $250,000, and for married couples is $500,000, the DMV has seen property appreciation that outpaces those numbers. So keep ALL your receipts for replacement items like your HVAC, windows, doors, roof, major landscaping and updating bathrooms and kitchens. You will thank me later! Of course most importantly consult a tax adviser for up-to-date information!”

Please don’t hesitate to reach out to either of us if you have more questions and happy holidays! Let’s get you home for the holidays.

Joseph Hudson is a Realtor with the Rutstein Group of Compass. Reach him at 703-587-0597 or [email protected].

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