Hennepin County court rules same-sex partner can inherit assets

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 1, 2012 - 10:58 PM

Minnesota's Defense of Marriage Act does not apply to probate cases, and could stretch farther, according to a court ruling.

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Thomas Proehl and James Morrison were married in California.

Minnesota's Defense of Marriage Act does not deny the right of same-sex partners to inherit each other's assets, according to a groundbreaking ruling Wednesday. The Hennepin County District Court referee's ruling means that James Morrison of Minneapolis is entitled to about $250,000 in assets he once shared with Thomas Proehl, his partner of 25 years.

It's the first ruling to establish that the act, known as DoMA, does not deny same-sex couples the "benefits of marriage," including the right to inherit. It could prove influential in other issues involving same-sex couples, including spousal privilege, legal and economic benefits.

It's not precedent-setting because it's a district court decision, but it could have an effect nationally as other courts examine the limits of their own DoMA laws, said Morrison's attorney, David Potter.

"This isn't a political decision, but it's a strong decision which advances the rights of same-sex couples in this state, regardless of how the marriage amendment fight turns out," he said.

Amendment: Not affected

Referee George Borer wrote that the 1997 DoMA bill in Minnesota initially included language prohibiting "the benefits of marriage" to same-sex couples but that language was removed before the bill became law. At that time, Arkansas, Kentucky and other states were drafting DoMA statutes with much broader "catch-all" prohibitions of same-sex couples' rights. Minnesota's law only prohibited contractual rights for same-sex couples, not statutory rights. In relation to same-sex relationships, "Benefits of marriage" may include legal, economic and employment benefits, health care coverage, spousal privilege, confidential marriage communication and the right to inherit. "The phrase 'benefits of marriage' has legal significance," Borer wrote. "So, too, does the deletion of the 'benefits of marriage' sentence. It appears to be an intentional legislative compromise that allowed the passage of this bill."

Chuck Darrell, director of communications of Minnesota for Marriage, said the ruling does not affect the proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. It "doesn't preclude civil unions or prohibit the Legislature from creating laws and benefits if they deem it necessary," he said. Nothing in the marriage amendment would prevent same-sex couples from having rights in probate cases, he said.

Not legally recognized

Proehl and Morrison were mainstays of the Twin Cities theater and arts community when Proehl, 46, died of a heart attack in April 2011. They hadn't made a will, and although most of their assets were in both of their names, Proehl's name alone was on a life insurance policy and assets from a house the couple sold in California, where they married in 2008.

Under DoMA, Morrison was not legally recognized as Proehl's spouse and was blocked from receiving the assets. The law dictated they go to Proehl's parents, although they agreed the assets belonged to Morrison. Morrison, 46, tried for more than a year to explain the issue to officials, who told him there was nothing they could do. He petitioned to Probate Court in February, asking to be named the legal heir. He argued his case in May.

On Wednesday, he said he was elated, not only for himself but for other same-sex couples. "I hope more than anything this will be beneficial for other families," he said.

In a written explanation of why he signed off on Borer's order, District Judge Jay Quam pointed out that the Legislature's consideration -- and rejection -- of broader language was not accidental. The interpretation of that language is not the result of a hidden agenda by the judges in a case he admitted "is unlike any that has come before Minnesota's probate court."

Were it not for DoMA, Quam pointed out, Proehl and Morrison were like any committed, responsible heterosexual couple in Minnesota.

"What makes this couple different is that they were a married, same-sex couple in a state where that status is legally unwelcome," the judge wrote.

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921

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