Tom Proehl and James Morrison
MINNEAPOLIS - A Hennepin County judge ruled this week that Minnesota's existing ban on gay marriage doesn't negate basic inheritance rights of same-sex couples married legally in other states.
Judge Jay Quam ordered that James Morrison of Minneapolis be treated as the heir of Thomas Proehl, the long-time partner he married in California. Morrison was forced to press the issue after Proehl died suddenly without a will, and before he had a chance to add Morrison's name to some of the couple's assets.
"This is a very bittersweet victory for me," Morrison told KARE Thursday. "It doesn't bring Tom back."
"But I hope there will be other families that don't have to go through, really, a very dehumanizing process of just trying to explain yourself at a time when you're grieving," Morrison added.
Judge Quam ruled, in an order filed Wednesday that Minnesota's probate code doesn't specify the surviving spouse must be of the opposite sex to be a spouse who dies.
Quam also found that state lawmakers never intended to deprive same-sex couples of the "benefits of marriage," when they passed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1997. That language, denying same-sex couples the benefits of marriage, had been in the DOMA bill at one point, but was taken out before final passage.
Morrison and Proehl met while in college at Moorhead State, and both build theater careers in New York City before moving back to Minnesota in 1999. Proehl was managing director of the Guthrie Theater, and Morrison was the director of the World Stage at the Guthrie.
"We decided marriage would be an extra layer of commitment," Morrison recalled.
"At that point, we'd been together for 22 years, and there was no question in our lives we were committed to each other for our lifetimes," he said.
They were careful to put most of their belongings in both of their names, but Tom had no will on file when he died of a heart attack at the age of 46 in 2011. He had just started a job at the University of Minnesota and hadn't had a chance to fill out the paperwork naming a beneficiary.
"Because our marriage isn't recognized in Minnesota we knew that we were vulnerable," Morrison explained. "So we took all the precautions that we knew how to take for one another. Unfortunately, we did not make a will."
The two had purchased a house together in San Francisco in 2007, when Proehl took a job as director of the American Conservatory Theater. Proehl and Morrison bought a home in California using proceeds from the sale of their home in Minnesota.
When they returned to Minneapolis in 2010, they sold the California house, and put the proceeds in an interest bearing account with the assumption the money would eventually go toward a home in the Twin Cities.
Proehl died before he had a chance to put Morrison's name on that bank account. Morrison found himself battling through a labyrinth of red tape to gain access to those funds, as well as survivors benefits Proehl's U of M insurance policy.
"At the University of Minnesota there's been incredible support, and everyone has wanted to do the right thing, but the law has not allowed them to do the right thing," Morrison said.
All the people he dealt with at the bank and at the government level said they were powerless to help because the California marriage certificate had no legal bearing in Minnesota due to the existing ban on same-sex marriage.
"It was hard," Morrison said. "It's been a very difficult year and a half. I can't stress enough the importance of a will, whether you're a heterosexual couple or a gay couple."
Proehl's parents went to bat for Morrison, who they regarded as a son-in-law. They signed many legal documents waiving any claim to their son's belongings.
"At the time Tom passed away, Tom's father was adamant that I be named as spouse on Tom's death certificate. There was a moment at the funeral home when someone asked if that was legally possible, but they went ahead and did it."
Judge Quam, following normal probate court procedure, relied on a thorough investigation by Hennepin County District Court Referee George Borer. It was Borer who studied how legislatures in various states have handled the "benefits of marriage" issue, and contrasted it with what Minnesota legislators did in 1997.
Judge Quam's ruling in Morrison's favor is not a legal precedent, in the traditional sense of the word. It didn't come from an appellate court, so other judges in Minnesota aren't bound by the ruling.
And Quam's order doesn't, in any way, invalidate Minnesota's Defense of Marriage Act. It's still significant because it's the first time a court in Minnesota has looked at this complex issue of inheritance rights for same-sex couples married in other states.
"It's been a really long road to get here," Morrison said, as he held onto a 2008 Christmas card featuring the smiling newlyweds in their tuxedos.
"And I don't think I could've done it without the hundreds of friends we have here in the Twin cities that have just said, 'You keep going. This is important,'" he said.
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