With recent legislation in some states validating and recognizing same-sex marriage, it is only a matter of time before the Courts and the legislature will be forced to consider other non-traditional types of marriages, as is evidenced by a recent Texas case, currently on appeal, addressing the validity of a marriage between a man and his transgender wife.
Nikki Aragguz has filed an appeal with the 13th District Court of Appeals in Texas, from a May 26, 2011 ruling declaring her marriage to fallen firefighter Thomas Araguz void, making Nikki ineligible to receive death benefits due to Thomas’ tragic death. Nikki was born as a male – Justin Graham Purdue on June 4, 1975 – but ultimately transitioned to female, having successfully undergone reassignment surgery two months after she and Thomas were wed. According to Nikki, she told Thomas that she had been born a male at the very beginning of their relationship, and, Thomas actually cared for her following her reassignment surgery. Thomas never discussed Nikki’s gender with his family, and, in fact, in a family law matter relating to custody of his children with a former wife, he denied ever knowing that Nikki was born male when shown a copy of her birth certificate.
When Thomas Arraguz was killed in a fire, he died intestate, i.e., without a will. He did, however, have several life insurance policies – one worth $60,000, in which he designated Nikki as beneficiary, and others totaling approximately $600,000, in which no beneficiaries were designated. According to Texas law, if no beneficiary was named on the policy, the proceeds would be split equally between the spouse of the decedent and his children. In the event that there was no spouse, proceeds would all go to Thomas’ children.
Thomas’ parents and ex-wife joined forces and filed a lawsuit claiming that Thomas never knew that Nikki was born male and that under Texas law, the marriage was void since both Nikki and Thomas were born male. The lower Court in Texas agreed, and on May 26, 2011, it issued a ruling declaring Nikki and Thomas’ marriage void. It relied, in part, on an earlier case which states that gender is determined chromosomally, and that, accordingly, an individual could never have a valid sex change. Since same-sex marriage is not currently recognized in Texas, the marriage was void, according to the lower Court.
While this case raises a plethora of legal and philosophical dilemmas, the one thing which remains constant is that a valid estate plan is essential in order to ensure that your assets go to whom you want them to go to. Part of preparing a good estate plan is properly designating beneficiaries of various assets, among them, life insurance. Had Thomas simply designated a trust, or in the alternative, Nikki and/or his children as the beneficiaries of any policies, this lawsuit would never have been filed. Although many commentators view this lawsuit as a huge step backward for gender-variant individuals, depending upon how it is ultimately decided, it could, ironically, be a huge step forward.