A recent Minnesota state district court ruling determined that a partner in a same-sex marriage may receive full spousal inheritance rights under Minnesota’s probate statutes despite the fact that same-sex marriages are not lawful in Minnesota. In a trailblazing decision, the Hennepin County Probate Court Division (Fourth Judicial District) determined that Minnesota’s statutory intestacy laws govern the inheritance rights of the surviving spouse of a same-sex marriage in the same manner as they have governed the inheritance rights of men and women lawfully married in the state of Minnesota for decades. In re: the Estate of Thomas Proehl, no. 27-PA-PR-12-260 (August 1, 2012).
Thomas Proehl and James Morrison were legally married in California on October 29, 2008. On April 5, 2011, Thomas died unexpectedly—a sad end to a 24-year relationship with his surviving partner, James. At his death, even though he did not have a Will, most of Thomas's assets passed to James via joint tenancy and by virtue of beneficiary designations. However, certain of Thomas's assets were titled solely in his own name at his death and, as a result, probate proceedings were required to determine the descent of those assets.
Minnesota Intestacy Statutes & Defense of Marriage Act
When a person dies without a Will, the Minnesota intestacy statutes govern how, and to whom, his or her probate assets are distributed. For a married couple with no children, generally, the surviving spouse is entitled to 100% of the deceased spouse's probate estate. However, never before has a Minnesota court allowed the surviving partner in a same-sex relationship to inherit property from his or her deceased partner under the intestacy statutes. Moreover, under the Minnesota Defense of Marriage Act (“Mn-DOMA”), same-sex marriages entered into under the laws of another state are "void" in this state and any "contractual rights granted by virtue of the marriage or its termination are unenforceable" in Minnesota. Minn. Stat. § 517.03(b)(2011).
The court first determined that the Minnesota Uniform Probate Code does not prohibit same-sex marriages nor does it preclude the surviving spouse in a same-sex marriage from receiving statutory inheritance rights. The court then examined the language of the Mn-DOMA and its legislative history. The court analyzed available information concerning the evolution of the language in the bill as it passed through committees and through both branches of the legislature, and concluded that the legislature intentionally narrowed the impact of the statute to limit only “contractual rights” and not all rights. The court determined that the legislature did not intend to limit the statutory rights of same-sex spouses, including rights under the intestacy statutes. The court concluded, therefore, that the Mn-DOMA “is limited in scope to prohibiting contractual rights, and should not apply to prohibit statutory rights.”
In further support of its conclusion, the court examined other states' DOMA statutes, several of which have specific statutory language broadening the scope of the law. For example, some states’ DOMA statutes explicitly prohibit couples in same-sex marriages from any and all legal benefits and rights derived from the marriage, as opposed to limiting the reach of the law to only “contractual rights.”
Further buttressing its conclusion, the court reviewed case law from the late 1940s and early 1950s in other jurisdictions where courts allowed the surviving spouse to inherit the deceased spouse’s property under the intestacy statutes even though the couple’s marriage was void under state law. The Hennepin County Probate Court Division relied on the logic and reasoning in those cases and concluded that allowing James to inherit Thomas’s probate assets in accordance with the intestacy statutes does not violate the public policy behind the Mn-DOMA.
Finally, the court emphasized that one of the purposes of the Minnesota probate statutes is to ensure that a decedent’s intent is effectuated. The court found that, based on the facts of the case, Thomas intended that James inherit his property. The court held that Thomas’s clear intent, underscored by the purpose of the inheritance laws and the principles of law and equity, dictated that James should be recognized as Thomas’s surviving spouse for the purposes of the intestacy statutes.
What it means
An appeal of this ruling is unlikely because James’s petition was unopposed. Thomas’s parents, who would have been the heirs-at-law if the court had not recognized James as the surviving spouse, stood in support of James’s petition. Without an appeal, the precedence of this ruling is significantly limited. Same-sex couples are well advised not to rely on the result of this decision to protect their inheritance interests in Minnesota. Indeed, the court’s opinion noted that Thomas and James relied on their lawful marriage in California to give them comfort that each would inherit from the other in the event that one of them predeceased the other without a Will.
Further, it is not clear to what extent this decision turns on the specific facts of this case− this decision being the only decision of its nature in Minnesota. Would there have been a different outcome had Thomas and James not been lawfully married under the laws of another jurisdiction? Would another result occur if Thomas and James had lived apart for long intervals during their relationship or if James’s petition had been contested?
November may bring still more to bear on this question when the citizens of Minnesota will be asked to vote on a proposed constitutional amendment that would make only a union of one man and one woman valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota.
We fully anticipate that this issue will arise again in other courtrooms in Minnesota under different, and possibly contentious, circumstances. Given the groundbreaking nature of this decision, we further anticipate that other states will look to its analytical framework and reasoning to guide their own examination of similar statutes within their jurisdictions.
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