Sun, Oct 26, 2008 - Page 7 News List

Court mulls definition of ‘common household’

DOMESTIC PARTNER The fiancee of a firefighter killed on Sept. 11 claimed his pension, but the man’s parents say since the couple lived with them, they should receive it


In theory, the trajectory of a young couple making a life together is a straightforward thing. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. They get married. Something like that.

But in real life, as laid out in a Brooklyn courtroom on Friday by a woman who is trying to collect the pension of her fiancee, a firefighter who died on Sept. 11, 2001, is not so tidy.

Maybe it goes something like this. Boy moves into girl’s apartment for a while, but then they both move back to their parents’ houses to save money. Girl and boy break up for a while. Girl moves in with boy in his bedroom in the basement of his parents’ house over his parents’ objections, but goes home to her parents for two or three nights a week, where she still gets her mail, on the nights when he stays at the firehouse.

Boy pays a bunch of girl’s bills while she is in school getting her master’s degree; her parents pay some of her other bills. Boy and girl get engaged, get a ring, book a reception hall, but shortly before Sept. 11, girl moves out of boy’s basement because she is starting a job that requires her to get up early and doesn’t want to run into boy’s father in the morning.

Did boy and girl live together? Did they keep a “common household”? Can they be considered domestic partners? Those questions are not just sociological; they have legal consequences.

In the case of Doreen Noone, who was engaged to Firefighter Kevin Prior, the Fire Department’s pension board decided the answer to the last question was yes and therefore awarded her US$37,600 a year of his pension under a 2003 state law making domestic partners of firefighters who died on Sept. 11 eligible for their pensions.

Prior’s parents, Gerard and Marian Prior, have challenged the pension board’s decision in court. They say that while Noone was their son’s fiancee, she was never his domestic partner. They say the pension benefits should be awarded to them.

The definition of “domestic partner” is broadly defined in the law. Domestic partnership, the law says, “is evidenced by a nexus of factors including, but not limited to, children in common, common ownership of real or personal property, signs of intent to marry, common householding, shared budgeting and the length of the personal relationship.”

And so on the stand in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn on Friday, Noone, a 36-year-old schoolteacher on Long Island, endured the attempts of one of the Priors’ lawyers, Steven Hyman, to poke holes in her version of events.

By the end of the day, Hyman had elicited from Noone an admission that, contrary to a statement in her pension application that Prior made her car payments by check, he actually gave her cash and she wrote the checks. Noone also acknowledged that there was little evidence that Prior paid her phone bills, contrary to her claims. Prior’s parents do not dispute that he paid more than US$7,000 of Noone’s bills in the years before his death.

The chronology of when, exactly, Noone lived with Prior, whom she started dating in 1997, also seemed to blur as Hyman probed deeper.

“I never thought that I was going to have to keep track of every date,” she said at one point.

Noone had stated on her application that she lived with Prior up until the day he died, but under questioning, she conceded that she had moved out of his bedroom a week or so before Sept. 11 when she was starting her first job as a teacher.

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