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Court: Gay partners have right to inheritance

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James Morrison, Thomas Proehl
James Morrison, left, and Thomas Proehl were in a relationship from 1987 until Proehl's death in 2011. A Hennepin County District Court referee ruled this week that Morrison was entitled to assets he shared with Proehl.
Photo courtesy of James Morrison

A new court ruling out of Hennepin County recognizes a Minneapolis man as the legal heir and sole surviving spouse to his late partner. 

The order gives same-sex partners the right to inherit each other's assets, and it could open the door for other Minnesota gay and lesbian couples to access additional benefits of marriage.

James Morrison and Thomas Proehl met in college, and were in a committed relationship for nearly 25 years. In 2008, they got married in California.

Then, Proehl died last year of a heart attack at the age of 46. And he didn't have a will.

Under Minnesota's Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, their marriage wasn't legally recognized in the state. That meant about $250,000 of assets in Proehl's name would have gone to his parents -- even though they wanted the assets to go to Morrison. 

Morrison said it's not just his partners' family who felt that way.

"I worked with everyone from the federal government to state government to try and find resolution. What I found was a great deal of sympathy and empathy, but the law just wouldn't allow them to resolve our estate without having to go to court," said Morrison. 

In fact, no one contested Morrison's claim that he should inherit the assets that he built alongside his partner.

The court ultimately agreed with him. In the ruling, District Court Refeee George Borer said Minnesota's DOMA law does not prohibit same-sex partners from accessing certain kinds of benefits from marriage, including the right to inherit. 

Judge Jay Quam agreed that under the state's probate laws, same-sex married couples "should be treated in death like any other married couple."

A group trying to pass a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman said this case has little to do with the November ballot question. 

"It's what we've always said. The marriage amendment doesn't change any rights or benefits same-sex couples currently have," said Autumn Leva, a spokeswoman for Minnesota for Marriage. "In fact, it doesn't prohibit any civil unions or other legal arrangments. It doesn't even limit the legislators' ability to add any additional protections if those are decided to be warranted in the future."

But gay rights advocates say Morrison's case shows just how far same-sex couples need to go to win the rights afforded to heterosexual couples. Morrison said he hopes it'll lead to further acceptance of same-sex marriage.

"My hope is this will at least make a small difference, and people hopefully begin to put a face to their neighbors and families and realize why this is so important," he said. 

After a year and a half of trying to claim the wealth he helped build with the partner he lost, Morrison says the court ruling is bittersweet.