As reported in the Star Tribune and on Minnesota Public Radio, Minnesota’s 4th Judicial District Court issued a surprise decision this week, finding that the state’s Defense of Marriage Act does not apply in probate court. So what does this mean for same-sex couples in Minnesota?
First, it is helpful to understand the facts of this case. According to the sources cited above, Minneapolis residents Thomas Proehl and James Morrison were married in California during the brief period in 2008 when same-sex marriage was legally recognized in that state. In 2011, Proehl died without having made a will, and at the time of his death, he had several solely owned assets in addition to those owned jointly with Morrison.
Because Proehl did not have a will, his assets needed to be distributed under Minnesota’s intestacy law. Under this law, in order for Morrison to inherit these assets, he needed to be recognized as Proehl’s spouse. Otherwise, Proehl’s parents would inherit. Proehl’s parents supported Morrison’s right to inherit, but he still needed to legally establish this right in court.
On Wednesday, the court ruled that the Minnesota Defense of Marriage Act — which reads, “A marriage entered into by persons of the same sex, either under common law or statute, that is recognized by another state or foreign jurisdiction is void in this state and contractual rights granted by virtue of the marriage or its termination are unenforceable in this state” — does not prevent the probate court from recognizing Morrison as Proehl’s spouse because the right to inherit under the intestacy law is not a “contractual right.”
Some caution is appropriate here. This ruling came from a single district court. And because Proehl’s parents apparently do not object to the outcome, there is unlikely to be an appeal that would allow the Court of Appeals or Supreme Court to weigh in.
A different judge could very well find that the “void in this state” provision of the Defense of Marriage Act operates separately from the “contractual rights” provision to bar a same-sex spouse from inheriting. Also, this November, Minnesotans will vote on the proposed “marriage amendment” to the state constitution, which specifies, “only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota.” If the amendment passes, the courts could interpret this language to bar claims such as Morrison’s.
It appears that this case turned out the way everyone involved wanted it to, so that is a positive outcome. But ultimately, unless and until full marriage equality is put in place, there is still a great deal of uncertainty about the inheritance rights of same-sex couples in the absence of a will or trust.