Deprived of Home and Property, Man Appeals to Washington's Highest Court

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Lambda encourages Court to reinstate property claims of lesbians and gay men
June 27, 2000

(LOS ANGELES, June 27, 2000) — Arguing that vital protections are at stake for lesbian and gay families, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund Tuesday filed an amicus brief that urges Washington state’s highest court to review a ruling that stripped a man of the home and business he had shared with his same-sex partner of nearly 30 years.

Lambda and the Northwest Women’s Law Center argue in separate friend-of-the-court briefs that courts should not create a special barrier to those in same-sex couples needing the protections of a state equitable doctrine.

The equitable doctrine, which protects “meretricious relationships,” applies when an unmarried couple separates or if one partner dies. It allows a party who does not have legal title nevertheless to seek a fair distribution of property that was acquired or enhanced while the couple was together.

The amicus briefs urge the Washington Supreme Court to hear the appeal in Vasquez v. Hawthorne, in which the Court of Appeals last February said that, because Frank Vasquez and Robert Schwerzler were not a different-sex couple, Vasquez had no right to the property he acquired with Schwerzler, his partner of 27 years. The men had no legal wills at the time Schwerzler died in 1995.

The ruling treats Vasquez as a legal stranger to their Puyallup, Washington, home, small business, and other property built up over the years with Schwerzler, valued at over $230,000. By declaring that same-sex couples cannot rely on the state equitable doctrine, the Court of Appeals has left gay people as a group without access to a remedy that helps resolve questions of property distribution in a fair and sensible manner.

In 1997, a trial court had upheld Vasquez’s claims after the siblings of his deceased partner demanded Schwerzler’s estate; the relatives appealed, leading to the devastating ruling.

Managing Attorney Jennifer Pizer of Lambda’s Western Regional Office, author of Lambda’s amicus brief, said, “We hope the Supreme Court will hear his case and uphold Frank Vasquez’s rights and those of others in same-sex relationships by ruling that the state’s equitable rule does not discriminate. It is not uncommon for a gay man or lesbian still grieving the loss of her or his partner to have to face the shock of finding the deceased partner’s relatives dismantling the home and possessions that the couple shared.”

Said Lisa Stone, Executive Director of the Northwest Women’s Law Center, “Understandably, most people are uncomfortable talking with their partners about what would happen if one of them were to die, and often they do not plan ahead by drawing up wills or other legal documents. The equitable doctrine should be available to everyone facing this problem. The courts should not take this option away from lesbian and gay couples, who do not have the option of marriage and, as a result, face many practical difficulties.”

Headquartered in New York and with regional offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta, Lambda is the nation’s oldest and largest legal organization serving lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV/AIDS.

(Vasquez v. Hawthorne, No. 22616-2-II)

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CONTACT: Jennifer C. Pizer 323-937-2728, ext. 223
Peg Byron 212-809-8585 or 888-987-1984 (pager)
NWWLC - Lisa Stone 206-682-9552
Terry Barnett - Counsel for Mr. Vasquez 253-756-0333


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