The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Utah woman’s same-sex partner of 50 years died. Then a judge declared them legally married.

Bonnie Foerster (left) and Beverly Grossaint in an undated photo. (Courtesy of Bonnie Foerster)

Bonnie Foerster knew within minutes of meeting Beverly Grossaint at a friend’s party in New York City in 1968 that they were meant to be together.

Foerster, then 24 and working for a poultry company, was married to an abusive husband who had blackened both her eyes and broken several of her ribs. She was wearing dark sunglasses to hide her bruises, when Grossaint, 31, “took off my glasses, looked at me with those deep blue eyes and told me that she could see my soul,” Foerster said in an interview with The Washington Post. “Just like that, we fell in love.”

Fifty years after that chance encounter, Foerster, now 74 and living in Salt Lake City, is mourning the loss of her partner, who died in May of pneumonia at age 82. The pair never married because they were suffering from various health problems in 2015, when same-sex marriage became legal nationwide.

Now, three months after Grossaint’s death, the couple has been declared legally married by a Utah court in an unusual case of a posthumous marriage union.

“I’m numb with happiness to finally be a married woman,” Foerster said.

The idea came about several weeks after Grossaint died, when Foerster’s longtime friend and lawyer, Roger Hoole, told her it might be still possible for the couple to be married. Meaning that, even though Grossaint had died — and even though they did not have a wedding ceremony — a judge could declare them legal spouses.

“I was floored,” Foerster said.

It had happened at least once before in Utah, and was upheld by the Utah Supreme Court in 2014. Each state governs its own laws of common-law marriage — which Utah does not recognize without a judge’s ruling — and the much rarer practice of posthumous marriages.

Marriage was something Grossaint and Foerster had hoped to do someday, Foerster said, but she had no idea it was still possible after Grossaint’s death.

“We’d always wanted to, but life kept getting in the way,” Foerster said.

Hoole told her that posthumous marriage rulings are extremely rare, but he thought their situation met the section of Utah’s marriage guidelines that deals with common-law marriage: “Utah does not have common law marriage; instead, you may petition the court to recognize your relationship as a marriage even though you never had a marriage ceremony.”

The law stipulates several requirements, including that the couple must have lived together, treat each other as if they are married and present themselves so other people believe they are married.

It also specifically allows for one partner to file for marriage after the other has died, as long as the petition is within one year of the death, or “the end of the relationship.”

Hoole filed a petition July 23.

Husband with Alzheimer’s forgot he was married to his wife of 38 years. He proposed, and they married again.

On Aug. 21, Foerster, who is blind and a double amputee, was wheeled into Salt Lake City’s 3rd District Court. Hoole asked Judge Patrick Corum to declare his client legally married to Grossaint in honor of their five decades together.

Foerster clutched a small rainbow flag and summoned her courage. She told the judge how she had left her husband and moved in with Grossaint one week after their first meeting. She recalled the time they had marched together in New York City’s Gay Pride Parade in 1976, and were pelted with garbage by people protesting gay unions. She talked about helping to care for Grossaint in her last years.

Mostly, though, she talked about “Bonnie and Bev.”

“We were perfect together,” Foerster recalled telling the judge through tears. “I was born for her and she was born for me.”

Hoole filed affidavits from people who had known the couple over the years to support the idea that they had always wanted to be married and that they had a reputation of being spouses.

“Clearly, the relationship they had as domestic partners was akin to a marriage,” Hoole said.

One of the pair’s friends, Ryan Garrett, 42, said he wrote in his affidavit that he had thought of Foerster and Grossaint as a “regular, old married couple” since he met them while helping to fix a plumbing problem in 2006.

“From that first day, I fell in love with them both,” Garrett said. “You could tell that they had a lot of affection and respect for each other. They really were inseparable.”

When Garrett was going through a difficult divorce, “they were both right there for me,” he added. “Instead of just one shoulder to cry on, I had two.”

At the end of the 20-minute hearing,  Corum agreed, ruling that Foerster and Grossaint be recognized as lawfully married.

He said that during their 50-year relationship, they maintained a single household and joint finances, mutually contributed to the support of each other, and were treated by family, friends and neighbors as though they were married.

Foerster said she was overwhelmed with tears. She could barely believe it was true.

She said she will not benefit financially other than to inherit her sweetheart’s belongings, adding that Grossaint did not have a life insurance policy. But she said there is an enormous emotional windfall.

Hoole was pleased as well.

“This isn’t a political thing for me — I just thought that their relationship should be recognized,” Hoole said. “Regardless of the position one takes on these matters, it’s difficult not to be happy for someone whose five-decade relationship is recognized legally after the long struggle they’ve been through.”

There have been few publicized cases of posthumous marriages in the United States apart from the one in Utah that reached the state Supreme Court. In that case, Janetta Gardiner and Kenneth Vanderwerff were in a relationship for three years starting in 2007, until he died at age 78. A judge granted her request for a posthumous marriage, making her the executor of his estate. Relatives of Vanderwerff challenged it and the ruling was overturned, but it was eventually upheld by the state’s highest court.

In another case in Miami Beach, a couple was married in a religious ceremony on the beach in 1987, and the groom died of a heart attack a few months later. The two had never gotten a marriage license, so the bride went to the courthouse and a circuit judge performed a posthumous marriage. It was later contested by the groom’s relatives, and the marriage was overturned by an appeals court.

‘We dreamed all the time about getting married someday’

As for Foerster, she said she got married when she was 17 in New York City because she wanted to escape an unhappy life at home.

“He went out six nights a week to meet women and I went to the gay bar once a week,” she recalled. “Two months after we married, he started beating me, but I always forgave him. And then, I met Bev.”

Foerster moved in with Grossaint, who was then working as an office manager for an embroidery company. In 1979, the pair decided to move to Salt Lake City to be closer to Grossaint’s ailing mother and find jobs: Foerster with a life insurance company and Grossaint with the Utah Public Service Commission.

“We dreamed all the time about getting married someday, and even had a commitment ceremony,” Foerster said. “We always thought, ‘Wow, wouldn’t that be wonderful someday to be recognized legally?’”

After about a decade, Foerster developed back trouble and then was hit with many other health problems, including failing eyesight, breast and cervical cancer and a rare bone infection called osteomyelitis. Grossaint accompanied her to every doctor and hospital visit.

“It’s okay, Bon — you’re a survivor,” she recalled Grossaint telling her often. “You’re beautiful from the inside out and I’ll always love you, no matter what. I’ll see you through this.”

And she did — through 29 back surgeries, blindness caused by macular degeneration and the amputation of both of Foerster’s legs below the knee in 2016, when her bone infection nearly ended her life.

Through their troubles, they had spoken with Bishop Terry Elkington of Salt Lake City’s Old Catholic Fellowship Church, who had planned to help the Catholic couple tie the knot.

“Beverly’s greatest wish was to legally marry Bonnie,” Elkington said. “The three of us had talked about it a lot before Beverly took a turn for the worst. They were so close and perfect for each other.”

Later in 2016, Grossaint, a former smoker, was struggling with health problems of her own, including vision loss, chronic heart failure and emphysema. In and out of the hospital for two years, she ended up in intensive care in the spring with trouble breathing, and doctors said there was nothing more they could do.

Gay valedictorian’s clash with parents canceled college plans. Donors, then Georgetown, paid his way.

Foerster got a call from the hospice center saying it was time for her to come say her final goodbye.

“When she heard my voice in the room, she asked me to go,” recalled Foerster emotionally, “because she didn’t want me to see her dying. She wanted me to remember the good times, the happy times. But every day was a good time and a happy time with Bevvie. So I stayed.”

Positioning her wheelchair next to Grossaint’s bed, Foerster held her hand tightly and sang “Day by Day” — the song from the “Godspell” musical that they had made theirs after hearing it on the radio in 1972.

Then she recalled telling Grossaint: “I want to thank you for every second of our lives. Every moment that we shared, every argument that we had, every bill that we paid together. I will never forget you. I love you more than words can say.’”

Because her wheelchair prevented her from leaning over to kiss Grossaint goodbye, she wiped the tears from her longtime love’s eyes.

Grossaint softly responded, “Oh, Bon, I will be waiting for you with open arms, and I will hold you eternally,” Foerster said.

Foerster, who lives in an assisted living center, was planning a memorial service for Sept. 15 but will now combine it with a “wedding celebration” party in honor of the judge’s ruling.

“I’m going to get a tattoo right above my heart with Bev’s name, a rose and a miniature heart,” Foerster said. “I know it will hurt like hell, but Bev’s worth it.”

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