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Partners Keep Property Tax Relief

Partners Keep Property Tax Relief


A California appellate court this week upheld a vital provision that protects registered domestic partners from property tax reappraisal when their partners die or transfer real estate.

A California appellate court this week upheld a vital provision that protects registered domestic partners from property tax reappraisal when their partners die or transfer real estate.

The third district court of appeal came out strongly in favor of same-sex couples in a unanimous three-judge decision Tuesday.

California is famous for 1978's Proposition 13, which freezes property tax assessment at a home's purchase price as long as there is no change in ownership. "Change of ownership," in turn, was eventually defined to exclude transfer among spouses, parents and children, and grandparents and grandchildren. These exceptions were enacted by the state legislature and ratified by voters in two separate constitutional amendments, protecting the named parties from losing their homes if suddenly faced with double or triple their annual taxes.

Back in 2003, the five-member California Board of Equalization, which governs tax policy in the state, voted to add registered domestic partners to those protected against new taxes during a "change of ownership."

It was no coincidence that the board was led by Carole Migden, a veteran California lesbian politician, now a state senator from San Francisco and the original author of the law creating the Golden State's domestic-partnership registry.

The board's decision did not sit well with certain county assessors, who challenged the policy as a violation of the state constitution in 2005. That year, while the suit was still pending, the California legislature put the policy into law, passing a bill effective in January 2006. In their suit, the assessors argued that the legislature had no power to codify a policy that was unconstitutionally put into place from the start.

Happily for domestic partners, a court in 2006 ruled that the board and the legislature were indeed authorized to expand the tax exclusion to protect them as well.

Led by Sutter County assessor Mike Strong, the bureaucrats appealed up the ladder to the third district court of appeal, which responded with Tuesday's ruling.

The gist of the dispute revolved around whether another constitutional amendment was required in order to add domestic partners to the list of protected relationships. And to simplify the court's response, the answer was no. The previous amendments defined several classes of exempt transfers. They did not limit the list, nor did they tie the hands of the board or the legislature.

In an 18-page decision, the court also recognized that the lawmakers acted, in their words, "to guarantee equality for all Californians, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, and to further the state's interests in protecting Californians from the potentially severe economic and social consequences of abandonment, separation, the death of a partner, and other life crises."

This, said the court, proved that the tax policy was not arbitrary but supported by a clearly legitimate state interest.

The National Center for Lesbian Rights, which along with Lambda Legal stood up for the law, enthusiastically praised the decision, as did Equality California.

But Strong was outraged. "This ruling is completely untenable," Strong told the local press. "We are considering options as to our next course of action."

The ruling can be appealed to the California supreme court, which is not obligated to take the case. (Ann Rostow,

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