A Minneapolis Lawyer Discusses the Recent Hennepin County Probate Decision on Inheritance Rights for Same Sex Couples
As a lawyer who specializes in the field of non-traditional families, I have to admit that this is an outcome that I would never have predicted.
Two of my prior posts discussed the inheritance issue facing James Morrison of Hennepin County, Minnesota. Briefly, Mr. Morrison legally married Thomas Proehl in California during the brief window in which same sex marriage was permitted in that state. Upon their return to Minnesota Mr. Proehl died of a heart attack and Mr. Morrison subsequently learned that there was $250,000 in life insurance benefits and in a solo bank account for which Mr. Proehl had not named a beneficiary. Further, Mr. Proehl did not have a will specifying where his estate should go in the event of his death.
After failing to make his case with the insurance and retirement companies, Mr. Morrison argued to the Hennepin County Probate Court that, because they were legally married in California, he was entitled to inherit the $250,000 from Mr. Proehl’s estate. In a surprising ruling yesterday, the Hennepin County Probate judge agreed and granted Mr. Morrison the right to inherit the $250,000.
Referee George Borer held that Minnesota’s Defense of Marriage Act (MN DOMA) does not deny a same-sex partner the right to inherit the other’s assets. His opinion noted that the MN DOMA bill as initially drafted included language prohibiting “the benefits of marriage” to same-sex couples but that language was removed prior to passage into law. Referee Borer stated that the removal of “benefits of marriage” language appeared to be an “intentional legislative compromise that allowed the passage of this bill.” Hennepin County Probate Judge Jay Quam signed off on the referee’s order stating that the Legislature’s rejection of the “benefits” language was not accidental and acknowledged that this case was “unlike any that has come before Minnesota’s probate court.”
The judge also noted that what made Mr. Proehl and Mr. Morrison different was “that they were a married, same-sex couple in a state where that status is legally unwelcome.”
This is a great outcome for Mr. Morrison and I hope he can put this all behind him now as I must have been emotionally wrenching to have this drag on for so long.
I certainly feel this is the right decision for this couple, but I fear it may lead to some unintended consequences. I will discuss these possible issues in the next post in this series.