As an avid photographer I am a big fan of one of the world’s most famous photographers Annie Leibovitz.  I hadn’t known much about her beyond her famous work until I went to a show of her work at the Brooklyn Art Museum a year or two ago.  Besides the breathtaking experience of being in the presence of some of her most iconic photographs (remember the Demi Moore pregnant shot?, something else in person and large format) that exhibit also gave me insight into Leibovitz’s personal life and relationship with longtime partner Susan Sontag.

As many may know, Sontag died in 2004.  As a result Leibovitz was required to pay up and pay up big time because same-sex partners do not have the same protections as federally recognized marriages.  The Advocate had this to say in a story about it in the May 2009 issue:

When news of Annie Leibovitz’s money woes came to light in March, many wondered why one of the world’s most famous photographers would need to borrow $15.5 million and pledge all rights to extensive property and all her work as collateral. The current speculation on the cause of her financial trouble was her inheritance from longtime partner Susan Sontag, who died in 2004. Since same-sex partners do not have the same protections as couples in federally recognized marriages, Leibovitz was required to pay up to a whopping 50% estate tax on several buildings bequeathed by Sontag, whereas a straight married couple would pay significantly less — specifically, zero.

I don’t know about you but the thought that the reward for building a life together (and that includes building assets of course) upon the grief-filled loss of your partner is potential financial insolvency even for the exceptionally successful is, well, mind-numbing.

Now the list of financial and legal inequalities the LGBT community faces because we cannot marry is long.  Here at Queercents we have written a lot on the topic as the Gay Marriage & Money topic can attest.  Even for those of us writing about it, the power of the personal stories we hear regularly can be shocking.  It’s not like we don’t expect it, but the unfair, unjust situation it is always seems to hit me as if I am hearing it for the first time.  it is sort of like gravity, I know it is there, but when I fall down it is still jolts and hurts me.

The money alone is devastating, but consider this fact shared very succinctly by Wallet Pop:

Famed celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz is broke. The woman who shot John Lennon on the same day that Mark David Chapman did, the one who has done portraits of everyone from Queen Elizabeth to a pregnant Demi Moore, has had to sign away the copyrights, negatives, and contracts for all her work to a high-class pawn shop. That includes everything she’s going to shoot in the future. In return, she gets $15.5 million to pay her debts, given at an interest rate of between 6-to 16%.

As a creative professional this sort of thing requires me to sit down and weep.  Any artist or creative professional knows that your heart and soul goes into your work and by nature of copyright laws the creator owns the copyright until such time as he/she relinquishes it through contract or otherwise.

Now she may have made some poor financial decisions like the home renovation Wallet Pop talks about. But hey who among the human race hasn’t made a small or large financial boo-boo?  No one.

AfterEllen puts the snarky commentators who seek only to blame financial choices in their place:

Some snarky commentators have remarked that Leibovitz is getting what she deserves for living beyond her means. In many ways, she probably could have prevented her current crisis, but I wonder how many of these “tough” commentators would feel if they suddenly had to pay half of the value of their homes to the government in order to keep on living there.

After all it is always easy to throw stones when you don’t have to walk a mile in a pair of queer shoes.  I know all my straight friends and family don’t think twice about how automatic it is to inherit estates without penalty, assume a spouse’s social security benefits, or be able to extend a spouse’s pension benefits over their own remaining life expectancy.  This sort of 50% whack isn’t even on their radar screen.

So here we have it, another clear example of why federally recognized marriage (or legal equivalent) is needed for same-sex couples.  In the meanwhile, it is a reminder to all of us to make sure we do what we can do to minimize the impact knowing that irregardless in many ways we will remain at the short end of the inheritance stick for the forseeable future through no fault of our own.

Photo Credit: Flickr


Paula Gregorowicz, owner of The Paula G. Company, offers life coaching for lesbians to help you gain the clarity, confidence, and courage you need to have success on your own terms. Get the free eCourse “5 Steps to Turn Fear Into Freedom” at her website