CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- South Africa's highest court ruled Thursday that gay partners must have the same inheritance rights as married couples, a decision in line with its landmark 2005 judgment that same sex marriages should be legalized.
The 10-member Constitutional Court ruled unanimously that existing succession laws were illegal because they excluded gay partners from provisions giving spouses automatic inheritance rights if a partner dies without leaving a will. The order was to have immediate effect.
It said the law should be changed to insert after every mention of the word "spouse," the phrase "or partner in a permanent same-sex life partnership in which the partners have undertaken reciprocal duties of support."
The current regulation "amounts to discrimination on the listed ground of sexual orientation," it said.
The ruling was a further victory for gay rights activists who are anticipating being able to marry their partners from Dec. 1, making South Africa the first nation on a deeply conservative continent to legalize same sex marriages.
Still, homosexuality remains largely taboo in South Africa, with many people saying it violates African cultural norms. The legislation met with heated opposition from many religious bodies and traditional leaders and only passed through the National Assembly because the ruling African National Congress ordered reluctant lawmakers to vote in favor.
South Africa's higher legislative chamber is expected to vote Monday on the Civil Union Bill, which was approved last week by the main parliamentary chamber, the National Assembly. President Thabo Mbeki must sign the law before Dec. 1 to meet the court's deadline. Otherwise, gay marriages will enter into effect by default.
South Africa recognized the rights of gay people in the constitution adopted after apartheid ended in 1994 - the first in the world to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
The case that led to Thursday's ruling was brought before the court by Mark Gory, whose long term partner, Henry Harrison Brooks, died without leaving a will.
Brooks' parents appointed another man as the executor of the will and claimed his estate. Gory disputed this and won an initial ruling the Pretoria high court.
The Constitutional Court ruled that Gory was Brooks' sole heir and that they had been living in a permanent relationship.
It canceled the sale of Gory and Brooks' joint Johannesburg home, which had been registered in Brooks' name, and ordered the return of Brooks' personal property to Gory.