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2019.08.09 16:59

Lithuanian same-sex couples struggle with equal access to financial services

Daiva Repečkaitė2019.08.09 16:59

Lithuania remains one of the few European Union countries that do not offer any legal recognition to same-sex couples. More than a symbol, the absence of civil partnership causes many practical problems to Lithuania's LGBT+ community.

Over a decade ago, Aušra and her female partner tried to get a mortgage loan from a bank.

“When I'd tell my friends the story of my unsuccessful attempt to get a loan, many would only then start to understand why same-sex couples need legal partnership,” Aušra recalls.

When the couple applied for the loan, the process initially advanced smoothly enough, but bank managers struggled to find a way to divide the financial liabilities between the partners.

“Finally, we met the manager one last time. She said she had discussed the situation with her colleagues and, unless a spouse or a close relative could be a guarantor, we wouldn't be able to get a loan,” Aušra says.

Bank employees told her about another case, of two cousins who applied for a loan to build a house, but were turned down.

Aušra did not have a relative to vouch for her. “I didn't even go to another bank. I was very angry and sad,” she says.

Her story, and others like it, show that the legalization of same-sex partnership, still missing in Lithuania, is more than just a symbolic gesture.

LGBT-friendly banks

This year, Lithuanian businesses and corporations endorsed Baltic Pride and the March for Equality for the first time. Barclays was the main partner of the pride week in Vilnius, while Swedbank sponsored Baltic Pride's human right conference.

Banks have been supporting LGBT+ events in many countries for years and organising diversity training for their employees. However, their hands are tied, if the laws do not recognize same-sex couples as partners.

A 2017 survey showed that 74 percent of the Lithuanian public opposed moves to legalize civil partnership for same-sex couples. Despite numerous calls and several drafted bills, the Lithuanian parliament has not come close to introducing civil partnership, either for same-sex or opposite-sex partners.

In 2017, however, the lawmakers passed Civil Code amendments allowing people living together to sign ‘joint activity’ contracts.

“Even though the alternative was publicly presented as a way for same-sex couples to manage their property relations, the individuals who have entered into the ‘joint activity’ contract would not be treated as family,” LGBT+ activist, and currently a member of Vilnius City Council, Tomas Vytaytas Raškevičius comments in the publication ‘Human Rights in Lithuania, 2016-2017’.

Lithuanian banks say that when they consider joint mortgage applications, they base their decision on the co-applicants' credit-worthiness and not their formal relationship.

“Same-sex co-borrowers carry the same risks as opposite-sex co-borrowers. The existence of civil marriage does not in any way change our risk assessment,” says Giedrė Bielskytė, a spokeswoman for Luminor bank.

“The main reasons why a mortgage application might be rejected are insufficient stable income or bad credit history” and not the applicants' marital status, agrees SEB bank's retail banking service head Vaidas Žagūnis.

Lawyer Vytautas Mizaras notes that same-sex partners may face more troubles in accessing other banking services, like opening joint bank accounts and using payment cards.

Rima has experienced these difficulties first-hand. She and her partner wanted to open a joint account for their household expenses, but was told at a bank that they couldn't.

However, Rima was offered an alternative: “They made a card for me linked to my girlfriend's account, so now I am transferring my salary to her account every month.”

However, that only solves part of the problem. The money in the partner's account is not formally Rima's. Should the couple need to give one another a bigger sum of money, it would be treated as income and could be subject to taxes.

Mizaras says that same-sex couples who lead family lives but are not treated as family could sue the Lithuanian government under Article 29 of the Constitution and argue that they are discriminated against on the basis of gender and sexual orientation.

However, so far both same-sex partners and banks have been looking for individual solutions to a systematic problem.