Hennepin probate case shows how marriage law stymies inheritance

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS
  • Star Tribune
  • May 25, 2012 - 9:37 PM

Thomas Proehl and James Morrison assumed they would grow old together. Still, they were careful.

Together more than 25 years, the mainstays of the Twin Cities theater and arts community were fit, relatively young and happy. Cars, homes and mortgages were owned jointly. They named one another as beneficiaries on their life insurance policies. They were married in San Francisco.

But they never made a will.

When Proehl, 46, died unexpectedly of a heart attack in April 2011, his grieving partner never foresaw the legal battle for money that was theirs that would have to be waged against a faceless opponent: A state law that prevents him from being recognized as Proehl's surviving spouse.

His petition to Hennepin County Probate Court asks that Morrison be named heir and raises the legal question of whether Minnesota's Defense of Marriage Act (DoMA) can prevent same-sex marriages in other states from being recognized in Minnesota, if only for probate purposes.

Morrison's case is one of practicality, said his attorney, David Potter, and it may be the first of its kind to challenge Minnesota's DoMA as a roadblock in probate cases.

Morrison, 46, is not arguing against the constitutionality of DoMA, which allows each state to choose whether to recognize a same-sex union that is recognized in another state.

Instead, Potter said, it's about his rights as a surviving spouse to the $250,000 in assets he and Proehl shared, equaling about a third of what they owned.

"This is important on the most basic human level," Potter said. "For people like James and Tom, who built a life together for 20-plus years, we should [take a] closer look at things, no matter how we feel about gay marriage."

The case is unfolding before a vote this fall over a proposed constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

Although Morrison's case is limited to inheritances, he said it underlines why civil marriage should be allowed for all U.S. citizens.

"I don't know if it will be groundbreaking, but I think with any civil rights movement, it's incremental, and you begin to see the system doesn't work in the way it's been designed," Morrison said.

Chuck Darrell, director of communications for Minnesota for Marriage, which supports the amendment, said probate issues can be solved without legalizing gay marriage.

"There's nothing in the marriage amendment that would stop the state Legislature from granting the rights and privileges these kinds of cases deserve where they see fit," he said. "I find that most people do not find the answer to these questions is redefining marriage."

Practical vs. philosophical

Proehl and Morrison met in 1987 at Moorhead State University. After graduation, they moved to New York City, where both had professional careers in theater. In 1999 they returned to Minnesota, where Proehl worked as general manager and managing director of the Guthrie Theater, while Morrison headed the Guthrie's public-affairs department and later the World Stages program. Both were integral in building the theater's new facility along the Mississippi River. After a stint heading the Minnesota State Arts Board, Proehl took a job at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, where they married. They returned to Minnesota when Proehl took a job as director of the theater arts and dance department at the University of Minnesota, while Morrison produced theater in New York but commuted to and from Minnesota. The couple paid their mortgages and other expenses through a joint checking account. When they returned to Minnesota, they received about $100,000 from the sale of their California house, which went into an individual investment account of Proehl's to earn interest.

"As it turned out," Morrison said, "It was the one account that my name wasn't on."

Proehl also had a life insurance policy provided by the U, but no beneficiary was named by mistake.

When Proehl died, the money -- about $250,000 -- couldn't go to Morrison because he wasn't considered a spouse. Under the law, the money was to go to Proehl's parents, Craig and Joni Proehl, even though they agreed it belonged to Morrison. Gifting the estate back to Morrison would incur large tax penalties. Besides, Craig Proehl said, it rightfully belongs to Morrison, whom they consider a son.

"Tom and James had been together for 25 years," Joni Proehl said. "We felt this would have been his decision; this was something we felt James was entitled to and he should have it."

Morrison tried for more than a year to explain the issue to officials, who simply shrugged and apologized. Potter filed the petition to probate court in February. They brought the case before Referee George Borer earlier this month. Borer will make a recommendation to presiding probate court Judge Jay Quam, who will issue a final decision.

Potter said the case won't set any binding precedent but could have practical consequences for other district judges who handle similar cases. Unlike other cases in Minnesota that challenge the constitutionality of banning gay marriage, he maintains that although awarding the inheritance to Morrison "is the right thing to do," it's about an important detail that's part of a hotly contested issue.

"The practical aspect of an abstract philosophical debate needs to be focused on," he said.

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921

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