Today, she’s chair of a group that provides legal advice to domestic partners, but when she first moved to Pittsburgh 16 years ago, the plight of same-sex couples was relatively foreign to Baltimore lawyer Maureen Cohon.
“There were so many issues involved about which I had no idea,” says Cohon, who moved to Pittsburgh for her own partner and husband, who is President of Carnegie Mellon University.
Soon, with her practice of family law at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, she encountered same-sex partnership issues firsthand. Couples would come to her with cases regarding real estate which was titled in only one partner’s name, thinking the other would get the property when the owner died. She explained to the partners that unless there was a legal document, i.e. a will stating that the property owner wanted his property to go to his partner, what he wanted to happen might not. Another issue was adoption where one partner adopted a child and the other parent was unable to do a second-parent adoption at that time in Pennsylvania. We needed to figure how to make sure that the nonadopting parent would be able to continue to care for the child, as a father, if something happened to his partner.
“MY CLIENTS WERE AMAZED, AND DISMAYED, THAT THEY HAVE TO BE PROACTIVE IF THEY WANT THEIR PARTNERS TO BE PROTECTED,” SHE SAYS.
These clients opened her eyes to the injustices same-sex couples encounter. Suddenly, Cohon had a realization. “I realized that we need to help these couples who are underrepresented,” said Cohon. “They need to know they need legal help.”
With this incentive, and the blessing of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, Cohon started the Nontraditional Couples and Families Group, a conglomeration of attorneys from across the country, from Philadelphia to California, that provides legal counsel to same-sex and nontraditional couples. The group meets four to six times a year and discusses everything from DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) and Proposition 8 to other legalities geared toward these relationships.
“In 2001, when this practice group began, we asked any lawyer in our firm who was interested to become a member of the new group, and we received an enormous turnout at our first meeting and that interest has continued,” she says.
She had some concern that a group like this one might alienate some of their clients and friends; Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney discovered just the opposite.
“No letters to the editor,” Cohon says. “We received a tremendous response from our clients and friends who began calling and wanting advice for their own children and friends. Everyone is touched by this in one way or another.”
Plus, the firm is in a league of its own.
The services of the group include domestic partner and cohabitation agreements, change of name, estate planning, litigation, and immigration, just to name a few. But of the many nontraditional couple issues, the one Cohon encounters the most is making sure these families are protected in life and death, something that’s not always apparent.
“My clients were amazed, and dismayed, that they have to be proactive if they want their partners to be protected,” she says. Cohon sees a growing tolerance from the general public but cites that it’s hard to measure acceptance when you’re an ally and not dealing with nontraditional issues on a personal level.
However, compared to when Cohon first became a lawyer, she recognizes strides in conversation.
“When I started, no one knew what DOMA was,” she says.
Based on this last election, with big wins for the LGBT community in Maine and Maryland, Cohon sees it getting better and better for gay and lesbian couples in the future.
“The time is right now. Younger people — there is no question in their minds that gay marriage is a good thing. No one wants to see one group treated lesser than another.”
The LGBT community and allies can visit the group’s website, www.nontraditionalcouples.com, for legal information, news, and services related to gay and lesbian couples.