Landmark ruling recognizes lesbian partnership

BY Advocate.com Editors

November 05 2002 12:00 AM ET

A Yakima County, Wash., superior court judge ruled Friday that two women ending a 10-year relationship must divide their assets equally--a decision that amounts to a divorce in a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage. Judge Heather Van Nuys said the relationship between Yakima physician Julia Robertson and Seattle nurse Linda Gormley was "sufficiently marriage-like to provide equitable relief." Gormley considered the ruling both a personal victory and a major accomplishment for same-sex couples everywhere. "Before, we had minimal legal protections," said Gormley, who sued Robertson after the couple ended their relationship in 1998. "Hopefully, now that changes."

Van Nuys called the couple's relationship an "intimate domestic partnership," allowing both women the same property rights given to a husband and wife in a divorce. While the women never entered into a marriage contract, "they did engage in activities directly affecting their careers, assets, and debts, including pooling resources, commingling funds, becoming jointly liable on debts, supporting each other's life choices and career-building or career-hindering choices," Van Nuys wrote in her ruling.

The two women shared a home titled in Robertson's name only. Gormley was responsible for her share of debts owed on joint credit accounts but had no claim to the house. Van Nuys said it would be unfair for Robertson "to retain all the property, the home, the equity, and the improvements and be responsible for only half of the jointly held credit cards she maintained during the relationship." Gormley received cash for her share of the house, and the two split common debts. Other property, including furniture and cars, was divided between them.

Robertson's lawyer, Bryan Myre, has asked Van Nuys to reconsider the financial terms of the ruling at a hearing scheduled for Friday. He said he is unsure whether Robertson will appeal Van Nuys's ruling. If an appellate court were to uphold the decision, it would set a precedent for courts statewide. In May the state supreme court, in the case of Vasquez v. Hawthorne, ruled that a Seattle man's 30-year same-sex relationship was enough like a marriage to grant him a share of his deceased partner's estate. But that precedent had never before been applied in the breakup of a same-sex couple, Myre said.

State representative Ed Murray (D-Seattle) said the decision to treat a same-sex couple like a married couple is the first of its kind in the state. An openly gay member of the legislature, Murray told the Yakima Herald-Republic that Van Nuys's ruling is "fairly enormous for Washington State."

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