Gay Marriage and Inheritance Rights, Part 4: Discussion of Probate Court Ruling That Gay Spouse May Inherit

This series of posts examines the unique case brought before the Hennepin County Probate Court in which a same sex spouse sought inheritance rights over $250,000 worth of assets from his deceased spouse’s estate. Recall that Mr. Morrison and Mr. Proehl were legally married during the brief window in California and later returned to Minnesota – a state that has a statue prohibiting the recognition of same-sex marriage – where Mr. Proehl died suddenly of a heart attack.  In question were approximately $250,000 worth of life insurance proceeds and in a solo bank account in which Mr. Morrison was not named a beneficiary.

After unsuccessfully fighting to have the insurance company and bank issue the money to him, Mr. Morrison filed suit in Hennepin County Probate Court arguing that he was entitled to Mr. Proehl’s estate because they were legally married in California. In a unique – and surprising – decision, the court agreed and ordered the $250,000 paid to Mr. Morrison.

As noted in my prior post, I am thrilled with this outcome for Mr. Morrison but caution that it may also cause some unintended consequences. A few issues that come to mind.

What if you break up?

I know many couples who traveled to a state (Iowa, Massachusetts or New York) or country (Canada) to get married in a jurisdiction in which same-sex marriage is legal and some of those couples are no longer together.  But, because the marriage is not valid in Minnesota and due to the residency requirements (of 6 months or more) in most states, the couples never divorced.  What happens if one member of that “broken relationship” dies? Will the “ex”, but still-legal-spouse-in-another-state, be able to inherit from the deceased?

Do you have to be “same-sex married” in a jurisdiction where it’s legal?

Another question: Would this only work for couples who got legally married in another state?  My partner and I have been together for almost 7 years and we have a 5-year-old daughter together. and are registered domestic partners in Minneapolis.  If my partner dies without a will, am I currently entitled to the same inheritance rights as Mr. Morrison or do we need to travel to Iowa (actually, I would choose New York) to get married so it’s legal somewhere? And what if we go to Illinois and get a civil union? Does that count?

Will gay couples rely on this decision?

As an estate planning attorney in Minnesota – a state increasingly restrictive of the right of gay couples to marry – I worry that potential clients will hear about this and interpret it to mean that they don’t need to properly plan for an emergency. I want to be sure to point out that the judge in this case clearly stated that this was “unlike any that has come before Minnesota’s probate court.” When I hear that language, I think that it’s a “one-off” decisions and may not be repeated. Further, this is not a binding case as it’s only at the district court level. Another thing to note is that Mr. Morrison did still have to spend time and money in court fighting for what should have – easily – been his. If Mr. Proehl had named Mr. Morrison as a beneficiary OR in a valid will, those $250,000 worth of assets would have been in Mr. Morrison’s hands within a couple of months without legal intervention. Please don’t rely on a court to save you, but call my firm and get a plan in place now! If you mention this blog post, I will waive my initial consultation fee because it’s that important to me to help this community (and so I know someone reads this).

What if other heirs dispute the partner/spouse’s inheritance rights?

What if other family members object to the surviving partner/spouse’s inheritance?&n