The California Court of Appeal’s positive ruling on inheritance rights for same-sex partners stands to set an influential precedent — and it involves a famous name from a past court case.
In early May the court ruled that Brent Beckwith could proceed with his lawsuit against Susan Dahl, the sister of his late partner, Marc Christian MacGinnis. He claims Dahl prevented MacGinnis, who died in 2009, from signing a will giving Beckwith a share of MacGinnis’s estate.
While many other states have recognized the right to sue for what’s known as “intentional interference with expectation of inheritance,” California is the first to do so in a case involving same-sex partners, says Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which filed a brief supporting Beckwith. The ruling came even though the men, together for 10 years, were not married or registered domestic partners. “California has always been a leader in protecting unmarried couples,” Minter says.
If MacGinnis’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he was once the partner of movie star Rock Hudson. After Hudson died of AIDS complications in 1985, MacGinnis, known publicly as simply Marc Christian, sued the actor’s estate, claiming Hudson had knowingly exposed him to HIV. MacGinnis tested negative but won a multimillion-dollar settlement.
That case was sensational, but the newer one will likely have more important legal implications. Beckwith says MacGinnis, while hospitalized shortly before his death, asked him to print out a will from his computer, splitting his estate between Beckwith and Dahl, and bring it to him to sign. According to Beckwith’s suit, Dahl thwarted that plan and promised to set up a trust instead, which she did not do. The Los Angeles Superior Court ruled in a probate action that MacGinnis had died without a will and awarded the entire estate to Dahl.
Beckwith sued Dahl in Orange County Superior Court, which dismissed the suit and said the appeals court had to decide whether to recognize the claim. The appeals court did recognize it and sent the case back to Orange County to see if the evidence supports him. So while Beckwith’s case remains open, it has been established that unmarried partners have a right to pursue such actions.
“If you’re in a relationship with someone and have a reasonable expectation that they’re going to leave their estate to you, you can go to court and have them look at the facts,” Minter says. While the court’s ruling technically affects only California, it’s a state that others often look to as a leader in legal matters. “California is very influential with other states,” Minter says.