Finding a way without a will

Posted on 27 Jul 2012 at 11:30am

Woman continues 3-year fight to keep E. Dallas home after lesbian partner of 23 years died, estranged family members stepped in

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ANNA WAUGH  |  Staff Writer

After losing her partner of more than two decades and surviving terminal cancer, one East Dallas woman is fighting to hold onto the life the couple built together.

Gina, who asked that her full name not be used because of pending legal action, lost her partner Michelle in 2009. Michelle suffered a rupture in her stomach that caused a massive bleed. She died in the couple’s bed.

The next morning, Michelle’s estranged mother was asking about the couple’s mortgage payments. Gina described Michelle’s relationship with her mother as “very strained,” with rare visits on holidays.

But the mother had every right to the house, which was refinanced in 2003. During the refinance, the home that Michelle and Gina purchased together in 1991 was put in Michelle’s name only — a decision made to protect Michelle after Gina was diagnosed with Stage 4 cervical cancer earlier that year.

Gina beat the odds and survived the cancer. But she found herself facing eviction in 2009 when her partner’s mother and brother came for their estate, because Michelle died suddenly without a will.

In the absence of a will, the estate would have passed to children, but the couple didn’t have any. Instead, it would be split between Michelle’s mother and son, who Gina said “came crawling out of the woodwork.”

Gina said civility during occasional visits with Michelle’s family only seemed to make the situation worse. During litigation, Michelle’s family members told Gina they missed and loved her but the property rightly should go to them.

“It’s pretty unbelievable to have people tell you how much they love you and miss you and still want to take your home and have you supposed to be OK with it,” she said. “Because they can, because it’s the law. That’s what was told to me.”

Three months after the funeral, Gina continued to mourn her partner of 23 years as she filed a lawsuit to try to fight the family’s claim on the home.

“I cannot explain what this felt like when you’re in the beginning of grief,” she said. “To have people asking you personal questions about your finances, looking at your things. You feel so violated.”

Gina’s attorney, John McCall, placed a lean on the home, so if Michelle’s family members tried to sell it, they’d have to reach a monetary agreement with Gina before the lean was removed. But Gina said she doesn’t want money, even after mediation last year failed and she’s back in probate court.

“I wanted my whole home. I feel like I’m entitled to my home. I spent 23 years with my partner. We bought the home together,” she said. “I put my home in my partner’s name at the encouragement of her mother to protect my partner from any possible thing that could happen with my family.”

The story took a twist in March when Michelle’s mother died. Gina, who said Michelle’s relationship with her brother was even more strained, thought he would walk away from the legal battle. But he didn’t.

McCall said the brother recently offered to drop the lawsuit if he could collect family heirlooms and have his legal fees covered.

McCall said he hopes the brother, who lives in Houston and is emotionally and physically removed from Gina’s grief, will see the life Gina and Michelle made together amid pictures and memories in the house and continue with his decision.

“For the brother, this is all business and it’s very distant because he obviously hasn’t seen his sister in years,” McCall said. “I think once he’s in that setting, it becomes much more emotional, much more personal and hopefully much more painful for him, and he’ll understand the pain of my client.”

The best option, McCall said, would have been for Michelle to name Gina as the sole heir in a will. If Gina had never signed over her ownership of the home, McCall said she would still be an owner. Or if she could show a paper trail detailing her financial contributions to the estate, she would be compensated.

“She doesn’t want money,” he said. “She wants to remain in her home.”

Even after three years, Texas would recognize a common law marriage and would allow a heterosexual spouse to get a life estate, allowing them to stay as long as they maintained the house. But Gina’s 23-year relationship with a woman is not even considered.

“This law needs to be thrown away. We surpassed anything for a common law marriage,” Gina said. “I am being horribly discriminated against [by the state] because I am female and my partner was female.”

Although “the worst has already happened to me because my partner is gone,” Gina said she still wants to remain in the house she made a home with Michelle, because leaving the memories would be even more painful.

“Of course it was [hard after she died]. Of course it was. But it’s our home, so I’m OK with staying in my home,” she said.

Now, Gina plans to have McCall write her a will.

And she’ll continue to share her story with others, so they can avoid similar problems.

“You can lose everything you ever owned — by law under the state of Texas to people that you’ve rarely seen,” she said.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 27, 2012.

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