Washington's Highest Court to Hear Case of Man Facing Loss of Home

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Lambda encourages court to reinstate protections to lesbian and gay families
October 12, 2000

(LOS ANGELES, October 12, 2000) — The Washington Supreme Court has agreed to hear the appeal of a man seeking to retain his home and business following the death of his partner of nearly 30 years, said Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund Thursday.

“This is an important case for lesbian and gay families, who deserve the same protections available to other couples when one partner dies without a legal will,” said Jennifer C. Pizer, managing attorney for Lambda’s Western Regional Office.

Lambda had urged the Court to hear the appeal in Vasquez v. Hawthorne, which was brought by Frank Vasquez, who had shared a home and business with Robert Schwerzler, his life partner of 27 years, who died in 1995 without a will.

Washington state’s highest court agreed Wednesday to hear the appeal.

In 1997, Schwerzler’s relatives sought to take over the men’s business and all their other assets, including their home in Puyallup, Washington. The property that the two acquired together during their relationship is valued at $230,000. A trial court upheld Vasquez’s claims to the property under a state equitable doctrine, and the relatives appealed.

The Court of Appeals ruled that Vasquez has no right to property acquired with Schwerzler because the two men are of the same sex and thus, under current Washington law, could not have married. Adding insult to injury, the appellate court decided the barrier to marriage disqualified them from the equitable doctrine as well.

The Washington doctrine in question protects those in “meretricious” – that is, non-marital – relationships, and applies when an unmarried couple separates or one partner dies. It allows a party who does not have legal title nevertheless to seek a fair distribution of property the couple together acquired or enhanced.

The Court of Appeals ruling, issued last February, treats Vasquez as a legal stranger to the property he and Schwerzler built up over the years they spent together as business and domestic partners.

The result, devastating both to Vasquez and to lesbian and gay families in the state, is the basis for the appeal to the state’s top court.

Lambda and the Northwest Women’s Law Center filed separate friend-of-the-court briefs arguing that courts should not create a special barrier to people in same-sex relationships who need the protections of the law.

Said Pizer, author of Lambda’s brief in the case, “The law must not turn its back on same-sex couples, who feel the same emotional devastation as do those in different-sex relationships upon the death of a life partner. When financial crisis accompanies such a loss, lesbian and gay families need the same sensible remedies that other unmarried couples rely on to resolve property disputes in a fair manner.”

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)
Terry Barnett - Counsel for Mr. Vasquez 253-756-0333


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