Vasquez v. Hawthorne
Frank Vasquez and Robert Schwerzler shared a life together — a home, business and other property — for 28 years in rural Washington state. Schwerzler managed the financial side of the business and Vasquez provided labor. But when Schwerzler died suddenly, leaving all the couple's property titled only in his name and no legal documents stipulating his wishes, Vasquez was left with no claim to the assets they had accumulated over the years. Schwerzler's elderly siblings — his legal heirs — demanded that Vasquez move out of the house and turn over the business and all the couple's other assets to them, contending that Schwerzler had not been gay and that Vasquez had been merely a boarder taking advantage of Schwerzler's generosity. A trial court ruled in favor of Vasquez after Schwerzler's siblings sued for the estate and to evict Vasquez. But, Schwerzler's siblings appealed and the Court of Appeal overturned the decision in Vasquez's favor, holding that the fairness rule on which Vasquez had relied only protects those in different-sex unmarried relationships. Lambda Legal filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Washington Supreme Court to review the mid-level appellate ruling that would have stripped a man of almost three decades of work and investments he shared with his partner. When the Washington Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, Lambda Legal filed a second friend-of-the-court brief, arguing that Washington's equity rule should be applied without discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation and explaining why many elderly lesbians and gay men remain closeted, leaving blood relatives unaware of their long-term relationships. The high court accepted Lambda Legal's reasoning and set a new precedent for Washington State. Holding that the equity rule applies equally to gay and heterosexual unmarried partners. After Washington's high court sent the case back to the trial court, the dispute was settled, with Vasquez retaining the ability to stay in his home but receiving no financial assets for his ongoing living expenses. It was only a small portion of what he would have received had Schwerzler prepared an estate plan as he had promised Vasquez.
Washington's equitable doctrine provides a safety net to unmarried different-sex partners, if the couple should break up or one partner should die without a will. By denying same-sex couples access to this doctrine as well as the right to marry, Washington State left same-sex couples unfairly vulnerable and without an important tool for resolving disputes about property in a fair manner. Washington now allows same-sex couples to register as domestic partners and obtain many of the protections different-sex couples receive through marriage. But same-sex couples remain vulnerable if they decide not to register or if they live in one of the many states without marriage, civil unions or registered domestic partnership.
Lambda Legal's Impact
This case highlights how important it is for same-sex couples to create life planning documents like wills or trusts as well as durable powers of attorney for health care and other matters to protect each other if tragedy strikes.
- November 1997 A Washington State trial court rules in Vasquez's favor before trial based on a state equity rule, Schwerzler's relatives appealed.
- February 2000 The Washington Court of Appeals reverses the trial court's order, holding that only those in different-sex relationships may rely on the equity rule.
- June 2000 Lambda Legal files friend-of-the-court brief supporting Vasquez's request for Washington Supreme Court review.
- October 2000 Washington Supreme Court grants review.
- January 2001 Lambda Legal files second friend-of-the-court brief.
- February 2001 Arguments made on behalf of Vasquez in the Washington Supreme Court.
- November 2001 Victory! Washington Supreme Court rules that state's equity rule protects those in unmarried relationships without restrictions based on gender or sexual orientation The case is returned to the trial court for consideration of disputed facts.
- July 2002 Case settles.
Jennifer C. Pizer
Jamie D. Pedersen and Suzanne J. Thomas of K&L Gates