Washington Supreme Court Upholds Fairness for Gay Couples

November 1, 2001 12:00 am

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OLYMPIA, WA–In a victory for equal treatment under the law, the Washington Supreme Court today upheld the right of gay partners to an equitable share of property jointly acquired while they were a couple.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, Vasquez v. Hawthorne, urging the court to recognize that equitable property distribution is a matter of fundamental fairness for gay and straight couples alike.

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

The ruling reversed a Washington Court of Appeals decision that had denied to unmarried same-sex couples important legal protections afforded to unmarried heterosexual couples.

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 Schwerzler died.

Courts have recognized that when a “meretricious” (i.e., non-marital) relationship ends, the partners have a right to a fair distribution of property acquired or enhanced by the couple while they were together, regardless of who has 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 Washington Supreme Court found that the equitable doctrines of property distribution at the end of a committed relationship are not restricted on the basis of sex or sexual orientation.

“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,” wrote Justice Charles Johnson. The case was remanded to the trial court to determine factual questions about the couple’s relationship.

The ACLU supported arguments in briefs by Lambda Legal Education and Defense Fund and the Northwest Women’s Law Center 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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