Herb Cohen, MD, and Daniel Cook, a librarian, were together for 53 years when Cohen died at 89 in 2014. Cook died at age 81 in 2018. Now, with the accounting of their estates completed and approved by the New York State attorney general’s office, $2.8 million in bequests to five major LGBTQ advocacy and service groups have been made — just as those groups were forced to close their offices and cancel big fundraisers due to the coronavirus catastrophe.
As a friend of the couple for more than 30 years, I served as Cohen’s trustee and Cook’s executor and was responsible for distributing the proceeds from the sale of their home and their investments to their heirs. The AG’s office signed off on the distributions last month.
SAGE, Advocacy & Services for LGBT Elders, where Cohen was a longtime board member, received $1,176,297. Together, the couple also left $705,778 to New York’s LGBT Community Center, $470,519 to Lambda Legal, and $235,259 each to GMHC and the National LGBTQ Task Force.
I spoke with the beneficiaries and others about the status of their finances and services as well as how there is now an upsurge in community members getting their end-of-life documents in order as we all confront our mortality in this pandemic.
“The timing of this gift could not possibly be better,” said Michael Adams, executive director of SAGE. “We do get some bequests but few this generous.”
SAGE had already named its library for Herb Cohen.
Though its SAGE Centers and offices are closed, 35 staff members “are phoning 2,000 SAGE constituents every day to ensure that they hear a human voice every day. We’re checking into see if they’ve received meal deliveries or if they’re sick and need help. We’re hand-delivering food from food pantries. And we have a growing body of virtual programming.”
SAGE has had to cancel upcoming fundraisers and paid training it was doing for nursing homes — a revenue loss Adams estimated at half a million dollars. But, he said, people are stepping up with gifts without being asked.
“Our elders are in crisis and they realize it,” he said. “But a lot of people have lost their jobs and are worried about their own personal finances.”
To learn about SAGE’s Legacy Giving program, visit the Get Involved section at sageusa.org.
Kevin Jennings, who has been executive director of Lambda Legal for just four months, called the Cohen-Cook bequest “a life-saver.”
“While the pandemic has shut down much of society, it has not shut down the court,” Jennings said, and Lambda continues to file cases as do our right-wing opponents.
Jennings said that Lambda, founded in 1973, has received more than 2,000 bequests over its long history through it Guardian Society.
“We have the degree of freedom we have today because of the sacrifices that previous generations made in far darker and scarier times than the one we are living in now,” he added, urging people to consider the fact that “this work is going to continue past your and my lifetimes and there will continue to be a need for resources to sustain the fight for the foreseeable future.”
The LGBT Community Center’s executive director Glennda Testone, in her post since 2009, had to cancel all of its spring events including the annual Garden Party in June, though there will be a virtual alternative.
“We’re looking at a shortfall but people are responding positively — including a $100,000 donation a week ago,” she said.
The Center, Testone said, has become “a virtual community center,” set up a chat function on its website, “running all groups as before but online.”
“We’re trying to provide general support for our community during this time including a meditation and mindfulness group,” as well as “mental health counseling, youth development, HIV and ESL groups — anything that we could take virtual. The response has been pretty tremendous.”
In accepting bequests, the Center has the Powsner-Cooperberg Legacy Society, named for two past presidents who died of AIDS.
Rea Carey has been with the National LGBTQ Task Force since 2004 and executive director since 2008.
“We lived through the 2008-09 recession and saw an eight to nine percent drop in giving to non-profits in general then,” she explained, adding that as for now, “those that rely more heavily on corporate or event money might face challenges. In the last month, we’ve had donors reach out to us and say, ‘I want to give you my donation early.’”
The Task Force has not laid off any staff and is heavily focused on campaigns like the coalition Queer the Census to get people to fill out their Census forms.
“We had planned a whole door-to-door grassroots outreach and now we’ve moved to virtual, social media, paid media to get our community counted,” Carey said. “Every single organization I know of is assessing what the future is going to look like, and there is tremendous uncertainty.”
Still, the Task Force and the American Civil Liberties Union are convening planning calls about the Title VII employment nondiscrimination cases that the Supreme Court is expected to rule on soon, determining whether discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity are covered under the protections for sex in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“We’re also focused on Queer the Vote,” Carey said of the impending fall election campaign. “COVID is revealing the massive disparities for LGBTQ people.”
The Task Force has a guide to Planned Giving on its website.
Kelsey Louie, CEO of GMHC, said, “We’re doing fine — able to quickly transition to providing most of our services remotely including counseling, legal, nutrition, and workforce” programs.
“We can’t do HIV testing,” he said, “but we’re providing home-testing kits and found a way to do groups.”
With a budget of $27 million, however, Louie acknowledged he is “concerned about fundraising,” noting there are “so many additional expenses trying to cope with COVID-19. Many of our donors face job loss and we rely on so many smaller gifts. But our community has a history and tradition of giving,” going back to GMHC’s founding in 1981.
GMHC has a Legacy Society to encourage bequests but also “to educate people on the importance of having your legal documents in order,” Louie said.
Veteran trusts and estates attorney Judith Turkel of Turkel Forman LLP said that when it comes to getting your legal affairs in order, “The message is, ‘Don’t be passive, be active.’ Take responsibility for your own life and possible illness and death planning. Don’t sit back and do nothing because the default can be devastating. Your legally identified ‘next of kin’ will be making your decisions and that could be an estranged cousin, sibling, or parents.”
Turkel started her practice in 1983 “when our community was devastated by AIDS.” But, she noted, “at least then lawyers could go in t hospitals and homes” to get final documents drawn up and properly witnessed. “Now — with social distancing — it is cumbersome [with virtual notarization, virtual witnessing, and virtual will execution] but not impossible.”
She recommends that everyone have a will, a health care proxy, a living will regarding end-of-life care decisions, HIPAA authorization, designation of a guardian, priority visitation, appointment of an agent to control remains, and a trusted person given durable power of attorney. There are additional documents needed for parents with minor children, including guardian and standby guardian designations.
Turkel said that in the absence of a will, you can designate beneficiaries for your bank, brokerage, life insurance, and retirement accounts either online or with your banker or broker — and that those beneficiaries can be individuals or charitable organizations. Those assets then pass to the beneficiaries outside your will without going through probate.
“Passing on real estate is the challenge,” she said. “Generally, you can’t change ownership without a lawyer.”
A will is valid in New York if it is signed in the presence of two witnesses who also sign and date it and may not be your executor, legal heir, or a beneficiary of the will — in fact, no beneficiary can be in the room. Doing this without a lawyer or at least a notary is far from ideal, but it can be valid.
Turkel recommended a guide available from the state attorney general’s office on making advance directives for your health care. She also urged pet owners to make provisions for them — as outlined by Manhattan’s Animal Medical Center — if you have a medical emergency.
New Alternatives for Homeless LGBTQ Youth, where I’m on the board, was not a beneficiary of the Cohen-Cook estates but is adjusting to the challenges for its extremely challenged clients.
“Case management and therapy are online, but our clients don’t have great access to the technology for groups,” explained executive director Kate Barnhart. “The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are making phone calls to them from all over the country. We’re now providing hot meals daily [as opposed to just Sundays and once during the week] that are packed to go from the church” — Metro Baptist at 410 West 40th Street, where the group is headquartered — “or delivered to the homebound. We’ve doubled our food budget and had to pay inflated prices for PPE supplies to protect the clients and staff.”
Barnhart added, “We also handing out masks for clients and hygiene supplies.”
Some New Alternatives clients are in the shelter system — where one contracted COVID-19 —and others are in youth shelters, on the street, or sleeping on trains. Six clients have been diagnosed with symptoms, which is rare for this age group but not for the homeless. Barnhart has been fighting to get the City’s Department of Homeless Services, which typically does not serve non-adults, to get them into isolation beds in hotel room like the Comfort Inn. The Department of Youth and Community Development, which is the agency that serves homeless youth, “don’t even have their isolation units open yet,” she explained.
New Alternatives is losing the revenue from a variety of small events that had to be canceled.
“We’ve gotten some COVID money from groups like the Stonewall Foundation and Cheer NY, the gay cheerleaders,” she said.
Cohen and Cook met in 1961 and lived together as a couple long before Stonewall at a time when most gay people still felt the need to either marry different-sex partners or live very discretely alone even if they were dating people of the same sex. In that first decade together, they became friends with Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer, who would go on to make marriage equality history at the Supreme Court in 2013, when Windsor’s suit claiming federal rights for same-sex married couples prevailed in her challenge to inheritances taxes levied on her after Spyer’s death.
Cohen and Cook’s active gay social life included having a summer cottage in Amagansett at a time when such pleasures were still affordable for middle class people. When they bought a three-bedroom co-op in the Majestic on Central Park West in 1980, they had to borrow heavily to close the $200,000 sale. Their estates ended up being in the millions because of the galloping prices of real estate in New York and in the Hamptons.
The men were very active in Long Island’s East End Gay Organization (EEGO), hosting the group’s annual Memorial Day Weekend party at their place. And when AIDS hit in 1981, EEGO raised some of the first big money for GMHC and other AIDS groups at a time when there wasn’t much of a tradition of philanthropy in the community.
While there were a handful of groups with paid staff in those days, most organizations were strictly grassroots and were funded by passing the hat. Lambda and the Task Force got started in 1973, SAGE in ’79, GMHC in ’81, and the Center in ’83. Larry Kramer famously went to Fire Island with a tin can and raised a total of about $60 standing on the pier right after founding GMHC.
Herbert Cohen and Daniel Cook were grateful to the LGBTQ movement that allowed them to live more and more openly and to gain more and more civil rights protections. They went to Massachusetts to marry in 2008 (before New York made it possible) to protect each other. They gave back through their activism and donations during their long lives. At Cohen’s funeral, Urvashi Vaid, a former Task Force executive director, told me, “I cherished Herb’s optimism, dishiness, and total honesty. He always told me the truth and was unbelievably positive.”
Cohen and Cook’s activism was born in the AIDS crisis. They worked out their choices of beneficiaries together and ended up bestowing them during a new kind of catastrophe.
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