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Man appeals to VA for gay partner's federal benefits

WASHINGTON (MCT) — The ceremony was meticulously planned, befitting a wedding where one of the grooms is a self-professed Virgo with obsessive-compulsive leanings.

A roving Austin Powers impersonator posed for photos with guests as a pair of dolphin ice sculptures glistened. A singer, dressed as Adam Sandler from the movie “The Wedding Singer,” crooned “Grow Old With You” as the couple walked down parallel aisles. After the vows, 24 monarch butterflies fluttered away while a party bus idled outside to haul any over-imbibed guests back home.

That 2003 union of Joe Krumbach and Jerry Hatcher, however, was missing one crucial detail: a marriage certificate that was legal.

The ceremony — officiated by a rabbi and witnessed by more than 200 guests at Salty’s restaurant in West Seattle — took place long before Washington state voters approved same-sex marriages beginning Dec. 6, 2012. Instead, Krumbach and Hatcher could only register as domestic partners.

That distinction today has become a legal hitch in Krumbach’s $80,000 claim against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Hatcher, a decorated Vietnam veteran, died in 2008. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2013 that denying federal benefits to same-sex married couples was unconstitutional, Krumbach applied for retroactive survivor’s benefits as Hatcher’s widower.

Last week, the VA again rejected Krumbach’s claim for so-called dependency and indemnity compensation. The tax-free money is paid to survivors of service members who die on duty or who were disabled from service-related causes. Hatcher, who died of liver disease, was declared 100 percent disabled because of his post-traumatic stress disorder.

The reason for the denial, the VA said, is that Hatcher died four years before Washington legalized same-sex marriage. The couple never got a chance to get hitched again, or have their domestic partnership automatically rolled over to marriage this June under the new state law.

Krumbach acknowledges his might be a quixotic fight, but he believes the VA’s ruling smacks of injustice. He and Hatcher committed to each other to the full extent allowed them at the time, and Krumbach says he’s being financially penalized for being gay.

“If I had a vagina, and my name was Josephine, this would not be a discussion,” the Vashon resident said. “What is the definition of marriage? It’s a contract.”

Last Monday, Lambda Legal, a national advocacy group for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender (LGBT) people, filed a petition seeking to overturn a recent VA directive on how to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling. In a filing with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C., Lambda accuses the VA of discrimination by limiting benefits to gay couples only if they live and married in a state where same-sex marriages are legal. That policy excludes couples who marry in a state where it is legal but live elsewhere.

Lambda filed the petition on behalf of the American Military Partner Association, a support network for LGBT service members and their families.

Susan Sommer, an attorney for Lambda Legal, said the petition likely won’t apply to Krumbach’s case. Hatcher’s death, she said, eliminated the chance to convert the couple’s status to legally married.

Krumbach, who turns 48 next week, insists his case has merit. He holds to Martin Luther King Jr.’s faith that the shift to justice is inexorable. All the same, Krumbach concedes that for him and Hatcher, the world may have changed a little too late.

It was only in 2006 that Washington State Supreme Court upheld the ban on gay marriages under the state’s 1998 Defense of Marriage Act, concluding that the Legislature was “entitled to believe that limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples furthers procreation, essential to the survival of the human race.”

Today Washington and 18 other states have legalized same-sex marriages. Three more recognize civil unions or domestic partnerships. Yet a majority of Americans still live in states that define marriage as between a man and a woman, according to Third Way, a nonprofit policy group that promotes moderate political agendas.

“I cannot help but wonder how many ‘me’s’ there are out there,” Krumbach said.

Krumbach spent more than two decades working as a mortgage lender and is past president of Seattle Mortgage Bankers Association. A detail hound (“I don’t do sloppy”), he can recall the smallest memories of his 19 years with Hatcher, whom he called an ancient soul.

They met in 1989 at the now-shuttered Ritz Cafe on Capitol Hill after Hatcher “rescued me from someone who wasn’t going to take no for an answer.” Krumbach had recently moved to Seattle after attending Washington State University. Hatcher was a 41-year-old Vietnam vet with two Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars and the Army Commendation for Valor. He had co-owned Dante’s, a bar and restaurant in the University District.

Krumbach said he is waging a moral, not financial, battle. Hatcher fought for his country, and Krumbach believes the country owes him on Hatcher’s behalf. He wants the right to be buried next to Hatcher in Arlington National Cemetery. The $80,000 would come in handy, too, as Krumbach has not earned a regular paycheck since being laid off as a loan officer at Evergreen Home Loans in 2011.

Most of all, Krumbach said he’s challenging a flawed system so others won’t have to.

“Every wave starts with a ripple. If in (Jerry’s) name I can make it better for the next guy, I have succeeded.”

ksong@seattletimes.com

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©2014 The Seattle Times. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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