ACLU of WA Urges Court to Support Rights of Longtime Gay Partner in Division of Joint Property

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
February 13, 2001 12:00 am

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OLYMPIA, WA–In a case highlighting the importance of equal treatment under the law, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington has filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the State Supreme Court to uphold a gay man’s rights to an equitable share of the property jointly acquired by him and his longtime partner.

“People who share a home and life together deserve respect from the law at the end of their time as partners, regardless of their sex,” said Roger Leishman, the cooperating attorney who wrote the ACLU’s brief along with Karen Boxx.

Oral arguments in the case, Vasquez v. Hawthorne are being heard today.

Frank Vasquez and Robert Schwerzler shared their lives and property together in Puyallup in a committed, cohabiting relationship of nearly 30 years that ended only upon Schwerzler’s death in 1995. The couple built up property valued at over $230,000, and the men had no legal wills when Schwertzler died.

Courts have recognized that when one partner in a “meretricious” (i.e., non-marital) relationship dies, the other partner has the right to a fair distribution of property acquired or enhanced by the couple when while they were together, even when he does not have legal title to the property.

Yet in a February, 2000 decision, the Washington Court of Appeals refused to award Vasquez an equitable share of his partner’s property for the sole reason that the partners were both male.

The ACLU brief argues that the appeals court’s ruling violates the Washington Equal Rights Amendment, which provides that, “Equality of rights and responsibility under the law shall not be abridged on account of sex.”

In determining the division of property for a partner of an unmarried couple, it is discriminatory to treat a gay couple differently from a heterosexual couple, the ACLU said. Rejecting Vasquez’s claim to an equitable share of the property because he is a man rather than a woman violates his rights under the Equal Rights Amendment.

Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Northwest Women’s Law Center also have filed briefs supporting the gay man’s rights. The ACLU’s brief supports their arguments that the meretricious relationship doctrine in Washington state has always been neutral regarding both sex and sexual orientation, and that it would violate the constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the law to impose a new “opposite-sex-only” requirement.

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