Washington court hears arguments about same-sex common-law dispute

By Advocate.com Editors

Originally published on Advocate.com February 15 2001 12:00 AM ET

The Washington State supreme court heard arguments Tuesday concerning whether common-law benefits should be extended to gay couples. Lawyers argued that Frank Vasquez, who shared the same house, business, and financial assets with Robert Schwerzler, his partner for 28 years, was entitled to the $230,000 estate after his partner’s death. The state court of appeals ruled last year that community property law in Washington State applies to marital-like relationships and cannot be utilized in cases involving same-sex couples since the legislature banned gay marriage. This ruling overturned an earlier decision by a superior court judge, who had granted nearly all of Schwerzler’s estate to Vasquez. Schwerzler died in October 1995 without leaving a will, generating a dispute between his siblings and Vasquez. Terry Barnett, Vasquez’s lawyer, argued that the appeals court ruling contradicted earlier rulings that set guidelines for common-law relationships. Those guidelines have nothing to do with gender or ability to marry, Barnett said. “The issue is whether these partners pooled their resources in a manner similar to marriage and [the accumulation of] property results,” Barnett said. Ross Taylor, an attorney arguing for the personal representative of Schwerzler’s siblings, said previous cases acknowledging “quasi-marital” relations involved male-female couples. He added that there is ambiguous evidence about whether the men even had a sexual relationship, presenting testimony by Schwerzler’s siblings and others who say they never saw the men display affection toward one another. “Were they gay lovers? Were they two gay friends? Was one gay and one straight?” Taylor asked the court. “The evidence could go several different ways.” Jennifer Pizer of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund said the appeals court ruling constructed an obstacle for gays when it treated Vasquez as “a legal stranger” to the property he and Schwerzler accumulated over the years.