Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Wyoming Supreme Court recognizes unmarried partners property rights

Jerald Hofstad and Cathryn Christie lived together from 1996 to 2007, with some breaks. They had two children and also raised five children from Jerald's previous relationship. Their case wound up in the Wyoming courts over a dispute concerning the size of Cathryn's share of the home they owned together. The home was purchased in 2005, using the proceeds from the sale of a home Jerald owned in his own name only. Jerald asked the court to value his share based on his vastly unequal financial contribution to the home, but the trial judge gave Cathryn half the value of the home. In an opinion handed down last week, the Wyoming Supreme Court upheld the 50-50 split.

Wyoming law allocates shares in a home held as "tenants in common" based on contribution to the home's purchase price. But that holds only if there is no "family relationship" between the co-owners. Evidence that one owner meant to give an equal share to the other, in spite of unequal contribution to the purchase price, can also create an equal share.

Jerald argued that, as an unmarried couple, he and Cathryn had no "family relationship." The court disagreed, based largely on the children they had in common. The court said that the couple's twin sons "bind the four of them inexorably and forever, resulting in a family relationship." [Emphasis in original]. Beyond that, the court also said that Jerald told Cathryn she would be an equal owner in the context of their reconciliation, and that indicated his intent to give Cathryn an equal share of the home.

I find it heartening that this ruling comes from Wyoming. I would go further and find a family relationship even without children, based on their years of living together in an intimate relationship. But I am reminded of a ruling over a decade ago in a wrongful death action brought by Laura Solomon when her partner Victoria Lane died in a tragic car accident. The District of Columbia trial judge ruled that Laura was Victoria's "next of kin" in large part because they had completed second parent adoptions and were both the legal parents of the two children they were raising. (The case ultimately settled, so this legal issue never went up on appeal).

Right after I read the court's opinion, I looked up Wyoming's "Defense of Marriage Act." Wyoming law says that marriage is between a man and a woman and nothing more. In other words, it is not a "super-DOMA," containing the kind of language that led to disapproval of employee domestic partner benefits in Michigan. The Michigan Supreme Court ruled that domestic partner benefits violated the part of the state's DOMA that prohibited recognition of a "legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals." Now I think the Wyoming court could have come out the same way even with a super-DOMA, since "family" is not the same as "marriage." But I also fear that at least some judges would go the way of Michigan and rule that considering an unmarried couple family would be just what the state's DOMA was trying to avoid.

And I also have to say that no state gets it as right as Washington does. In Washington property acquired by either cohabiting partner can be divided as community property when the relationship ends. The Wyoming opinion doesn't tell us how much of Jerald's assets Cathryn never had a claim to because the bright line of marriage kept her from claiming any of "Jerald's" savings, investments, or other assets. Had the home been titled in Jerald's name alone she would have been out of luck. Washington state is a great model. I wish other states would follow its lead.

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