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Published August 02, 2012, 10:45 AM

Minnesota Court: Same-sex partner has right to inheritance

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A referee in Hennepin County District Court has found that Minnesota's Defense of Marriage Act does not deny same-sex partners the "benefits of marriage," including the right to inherit each other's assets.

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A referee in Hennepin County District Court has found that Minnesota's Defense of Marriage Act does not deny same-sex partners the "benefits of marriage," including the right to inherit each other's assets.

Referee George Borer's ruling Wednesday doesn't set precedent because it upholds a lower court's ruling, but it could affect cases in other states with laws barring same-sex marriage, the Star Tribune reported.

The ruling means James Morrison, a Minneapolis man, is entitled to inherit about $250,000 in assets he once shared with his longtime partner, Thomas Proehl, who died last year.

"This isn't a political decision, but it's a strong decision which advances the rights of same-sex couples in this state, regardless of how the marriage amendment fight turns out," said Morrison's attorney, David Potter.

Chuck Darrell, a spokesman for Minnesota for Marriage, said the ruling doesn't affect the proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in Minnesota. He says there is nothing in the marriage amendment that would prevent same-sex couples from having inheritance rights.

In the ruling, Borer wrote that Minnesota's law only bars contractual rights for same-sex couples, not statutory rights.

He said the 1997 bill initially included language prohibiting "the benefits of marriage" to same-sex couples, but the language was taken out before the law was passed. "Benefits of marriage" may include legal, economic and employment benefits, health care coverage, and the right to inherit.

"The phrase 'benefits of marriage' has legal significance," Borer wrote. "So, too, does the deletion of the 'benefits of marriage' sentence. It appears to be an intentional legislative compromise that allowed the passage of this bill."

District Judge Jay Quam, who issued a written explanation about why he signed off on Borer's ruling, admitted the case is "unlike any that has come before Minnesota's probate court." But he said the Legislature's rejection of broader language was not accidental.

Quam said that aside from the Defense of Marriage Act, Proehl and Morrison were like any committed, responsible heterosexual couple in Minnesota.

"What makes this couple different is that they were a married, same-sex couple in a state where that status is legally unwelcome," Quam wrote.

Proehl and Morrison were married in California in 2008. They were heavily involved in the Twin Cities theater and arts community when Proehl died of a heart attack in April 2011 at age 46. There was no will, and although most assets were in both of their names, Proehl's name was the only one on a life insurance policy and assets from a house they sold in California.

Morrison was not legally recognized as Proehl's spouse in Minnesota and was blocked from inheriting assets. Under law, the assets were to go to Proehl's parents, but they agreed Morrison should be the beneficiary.

Morrison asked the Probate Court in February to name him the legal heir.

He told the Star Tribune on Wednesday that he was elated, for himself and for other same-sex couples. "I hope more than anything this will be beneficial for other families," he said.

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