OLYMPIA, Wash. — Gays may be entitled to the estates of partners who die without wills, the Washington Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The decision came as the justices ordered a new trial for Frank Vasquez, who is claiming the $230,000 estate of his longtime partner. A lower court had found the claim invalid because same-sex marriage is illegal in Washington.
“Equitable claims are not dependent on the ‘legality’ of the relationship between the parties, nor are they limited by the gender or sexual orientation of the parties,” Justice Charles Johnson wrote in the unanimous decision.
Vasquez, 64, shared a house, business and financial assets with Robert Schwerzler until Schwerzler died without a will in 1995.
Vasquez claimed the estate, which consisted mainly of the house, and was challenged by Schwerzler’s siblings. The siblings said they never saw the men display affection, that Vasquez was apparently a housekeeper, and that he did not accompany Schwerzler on trips.
“They literally wanted to put Mr. Vasquez out on the street with nothing,” said Terry Barnett, Vasquez’s attorney. Vasquez is illiterate and disabled because of a childhood head injury, according to court records.
Ross Taylor, an attorney for Schwerzler’s siblings, said he hopes to disprove Vasquez’ version of the relationship at the trial, thus avoiding the question of whether he is entitled to the estate.
“My clients do not think their brother was a homosexual,” Taylor said.
A trial judge ruled that Vasquez was entitled to the property under a legal concept that protects the interests of unmarried people in long-term relationships. An appeals court reversed the decision, saying the concept does not apply to same-sex couples because they cannot legally marry.
The state’s highest court rejected that conclusion but ordered a new trial because some facts of the case are in dispute.
“It’s a tremendous affirmation of one of the most basic principles,” said Jenny Pizer of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a gay rights organization