After Harrowing Shipwreck, Gay Couple Denied Insurance Claim

By Kate Opalewski

MACOMB TWP -

Brian Nelson of Macomb Township said he hears stories all the time about how companies discriminate against LGBT people. Following a boating accident in July, it hit close to home when Nelson discovered that his homeowners' insurance did not cover any of the lost items that belonged to his partner Ryan Miller.

Their miraculous story made headlines after Nelson and Miller, along with Miller's son Dakota Mack, 10, and his friend Jackson Fisher Jr., 12, survived 14 hours in the waters of Lake Huron. Together, they planned to enjoy a day of fishing on an 18-foot boat borrowed from Fisher Jr.'s grandfather. Their adventure from Au Gres to Saginaw Bay began at 10 a.m. By 5 p.m., they contacted Fisher Jr.'s grandfather to report their intended return. While headed back, the weather changed dramatically and high winds caused three large waves to capsize the boat.

Nelson and Miller quickly grabbed Mack and Fisher Jr. to throw them out of harm's way to make sure the boat wouldn't roll on them. After the boat overturned, Nelson and Miller got the boys onto the hull. The boat was sticking up out of the water because of an air pocket underneath maintained, in part, by Nelson who was standing on the motor at the opposite end of the boat. Stranded for an hour, the group spotted another fisherman in the area. Nelson and Miller made a difficult decision and agreed that Miller should swim toward the boat to get help. Unfortunately, their voices could not be heard and they were unseen as Miller drifted away from the boat, spending the next 13 hours alone in the water with his life jacket keeping him afloat.

"I kept thinking how am I going to get these boys and Ryan home safe or is this really going to be the end. I grew up on that bay and I know firsthand that most people do not survive when this happens and usually they are searching for bodies, not survivors. Knowing the odds were stacked against us, I had no choice but to go into pure survival mode and do whatever it takes to get them home, and at the same time, worry about Ryan and whether or not he made it to shore or if he was floating dead somewhere," said Nelson.

When the group didn't return as planned, Fisher Jr.'s grandfather contacted Coast Guard Sector Detroit at 6:40 p.m. While clinging to life, Nelson wondered if anybody was searching for them and where they might be considering so much time had passed. He said he kept the boys talking, praying, and even allowed them to sleep for a few hours. "I tried taking their minds off of what I thought was going to be the inevitable," said Nelson.

A rescue aircrew from Air Station Detroit finally located the boat in Essexville around 7:30 a.m. the next morning along with Nelson, Mack and Fisher Jr. They were transferred to a rescue boat to return to land. Shortly after, Miller was found floating in the East Tawas area. Although they weren't together right away, they all made it home safely to their friends and family where Nelson said they have recovered from this. "In fact, we have already been fishing again since then," he said.

In Nelson's mind, the worst part of the experience is the way Allstate handled his claim following the accident. "I never thought they would do this to us. I was honest in telling them what our true losses were and I never hid any facts from them and when they came back and denied only Ryan's belongings, I was disappointed," said Nelson, adding that Miller is already on his auto insurance policy with Allstate.

"Even the claim rep said how sorry he was and I told him they should be ashamed of what they are doing. He said if we were married this wouldn't be an issue, but because Michigan does not recognize us they would not pay the claim. I could have lied and just added Ryan's belongings to my list of losses and they would have probably paid them, but that's not who I am. I refuse to lie and hide our relationship to anyone," he said.

Together for almost two years, Miller has health insurance through Nelson's employer and they have joint accounts at their bank. Allstate still denied the claim because Nelson and Miller are not "related."

"I told them he was my domestic partner. They told me if I wanted his things covered, I had to take out a renter's policy for him going forward. I said why does he need a renter's policy when he owns just as much of the house as I do?" said Nelson. "If we were husband and wife this wouldn't even be an issue or if it were recognized in Michigan we wouldn't have this problem. Once again it amazes me how we are never treated or looked at as equals in society."

This is why attorney Amanda Shelton of the Shelton and Deon Law Group urges same-sex couples to be sure that they have coverage that will cover their partner as well as themselves. "This is particularly important if only one partner owns the home. It is also important for LGBT people to find out if the insurance company will recognize their domestic partnership despite the Michigan marriage amendment. Get it in writing! In general, it is of paramount importance that same-sex couples have the proper estate planning documents in place including wills, patient advocates, and financial powers of attorneys," said Shelton.

Nelson said the sheriff on duty when he and the boys were rescued gave him a hard time about releasing the boys to him. "In this case, if Ryan had executed a delegation of parental authority to Brian then Brian would have had the legal authority to take custody of their son from the sheriff," said Shelton.

Meagan Cass in the office of Allstate Insurance Communications confirmed that domestic partners are not automatically covered by their homeowners' policies in Michigan, although heterosexual married couples are automatically and immediately fully covered. "Partners can be named as an additional insured individual if they have a financial interest in the property, such as being on the mortgage or the deed," said Cass. "Otherwise they would need a renters' policy to cover their belongings."

It is important that same-sex couples use an agent that fully understands the real family structure, said Allstate agent Otha Williams in West Bloomfield, so the policy is written to cover all risks. "I like to have relationships with my clients," said Williams, "and to know them so I can help them make the appropriate decisions. There are lots of ways to determine an insurable interest in the property, so your agent needs to know what's going on. If you say 'this is my man,' or 'this is my woman' then I can help. I can write the policy so it covers both people's belongings. You have to step up and say what's going on."

Allstate is not alone in how it writes homeowners' policies. State Farm agent Joan Warner said her company can also write homeowner policies with both partners even if they are not both owners of the property, but she had a caution. "You have to be careful because if there is a claim the check will be written out in both people's names. If the relationship ends, the homeowner better update the policy with their agent to avoid any complications at the time of any future claim."

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