Originally Published in the Saratogian: Saturday, July 2, 2011. Click here to read online.

*WINNER: Local Media Association 2011 Best Feature Series: Honorable Mention Story

By SUZANNA K. LOURIE

SARATOGA SPRINGS — After 17 years together, Kevin Martin and Ralph Hays can finally plan their wedding.

On June 24, following a series of closed-door debates in Albany, the Marriage Equality Act legalizing same-sex marriage in New York passed the Republican-led Senate in a 33-29 vote. Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a long-time advocate of gay rights in New York, signed the bill, which will go into effect in late July.

“We’ve always had vague little notions about what our wedding would be like, but we had to push it to the back of our minds because we couldn’t get our hopes up and be devastated again,” Hays said of the couple’s wedding plans.

In the week following the approval of the bill, Hays and Martin set a tentative wedding date for this coming fall at one of their favorite Lake George getaway destinations.

With things like music, invitations and seating charts on their minds, Hays and Martin aren’t concerned about having to wait 30 days to obtain their marriage license from the state.

“We haven’t really thought about that — we have, however, ordered our daughter’s dress and started planning a trip to Disney World as a family to celebrate next summer — so, first things first,” Hays said.

Hays and Martin left their families and friends in Ohio 14 years ago to move to Wilton, where they could legally adopt children and start a family. They are the parents of a 14-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter, both adopted from Vietnam.

“It’s amazing that we are able to even have the discussion about little things like what music to pick for the reception,” Hays said. “It’s a joy.”

The increased number of couples planning weddings following passage of the bill is also music to the ears of local venues, florists and other wedding oriented businesses.

“I definitely expect to see a spike in couples getting married because now we have this whole new group of people who have the opportunity,” said Shannon Whitney, owner of Wedding Planning Plus, a wedding planning business serving the Capital DistrictWhitney said there are plenty of people looking to capitalize on this new clientele and that she has received phone calls and emails from people looking to compile wedding directories specifically for same-sex couples.

“It’s just another way to make money,” Whitney said. “Gay couples don’t need a separate directory — to me, a wedding is still a wedding, whether it’s between a man and a woman, two men or two women. My philosophy won’t change since I try to cater to the needs of each individual couple.”Although Whitney hasn’t noticed a strong business boom just yet, she said that other local venues have already seen a flood of requests coming from gay couples planning their weddings.Erin Dewey, the wedding coordinator at the Inn at Erlowest in Lake George, also expects a surge in the state’s wedding industry.

“We have received three requests in just four days since the bill passed and we expect to get a lot more in the following months,” Dewey said.

Closer to home, popular wedding destination Longfellows hotel and restaurant in Saratoga Springs is also predicting an increase in wedding receptions.

“I know we have a few same-sex marriages on the books,” said Jamie Lanning who works in Longfellows’ corporate sales division. “I think we’re all anticipating a bit of an influx, and the requests are coming in a little at a time. Most of these people have been in long-term relationships so it’s great to see — we’ve done commitment ceremonies prior to this, but we’re very friendly to same-sex marriages.”

For Hays and Martin, planning all the bells and whistles of a wedding day is exciting, but it’s what happens after the ceremony that matters most.

“The legal protections for our family that come with marriage from the state are huge,” Hays said.

Attorney Julie Frances of Saratoga Springs shed light on a few of the more than 1,000 legal protections that same-sex couples will gain through marriage.

“One of the big things is the tax benefits that come with marriage. Married couples can file joint tax returns and then they pay less in state taxes,” Frances said.

The rights that extend to same-sex couples who choose to marry after the bill goes into effect are only recognized on the state level. Until the federal government reviews and amends its policies about same-sex marriage, the issue is a state one, Frances said.

“Prior to the enactment of the bill, there were several contractual agreements that same-sex couples could enter into for some rights, including things like a health care proxy,” Frances said. “But not all of the same rights available to heterosexual married couples could be solved with contracts, so allowing gay couples to marry removes a lot of the obstacles they had to face in the past.”

For example, prior to the legalization of gay marriage, same-sex couples could sign a health care proxy appointing a partner to be the other’s agent. In the case that one partner is incapacitated due to a severe accident or illness, their agent becomes the person who would be in charge of making the other’s medical decisions in accordance with their living will.

“Before this law, the tricky part for a gay couple would be if they never got around to signing a proxy or writing a living will,” Frances said. “If a member of that couple was in an unexpected accident without those documents, the other partner would not have the right to be the decision maker, whereas for a married couple, the spouse automatically gets that responsibility.”

In addition to the health care benefits of marriage, Hays said the estate tax benefit holds tremendous significance for his family.

“For married couples, if a husband dies, the wife automatically gets the house and doesn’t have to pay tax on it,” Hays explained. “That was not afforded to us before. It’s mundane, but the fact we don’t have to live under that fear — people don’t realize how huge that is.”

Beyond the legal protections that coincide with a marriage certificate, and beyond the bells and whistles of planning a wedding ceremony, the new Marriage Equality Act holds even greater meaning for Martin and Hays.

“I played a concert last night in Ballston Spa, and when we played ‘God Bless America’ I felt so happy to be playing it because I felt like a true American,” Hays said. “I can’t imagine playing that if the bill didn’t go through. There’s still a lot to go through on the national level, but right now it’s night and day. We feel absolute elation.”