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California Supreme Court Rejects Challenge to Property Tax Protections for Domestic Partners

News release from National Center For Lesbian Rights:

(San Francisco, CA, January 3, 2008) — Today, in a major victory for same-sex couples, the California Supreme Court denied a petition by county assessors seeking review of a California Court of Appeal decision affirming the validity of basic property tax protections for domestic partners. The Court’s decision means that the validity of these protections is now secure. No further appeals are possible.

On October 3, 2007, the California Court of Appeal unanimously affirmed the validity of a Board of Equalization rule that protects domestic partners from increased property taxes when one of the partners dies and the other inherits the couple’s home. California law has long provided this protection for surviving heterosexual spouses.

The case began in March 2005 when Sutter and Orange Counties challenged the rule in state court. Represented by NCLR, Lambda Legal, and the law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP, Equality California and three same-sex couples intervened in the litigation to defend the rule. Orange County later left the litigation, but Tehama and Madera Counties joined it. In 2006, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Jack Sapunor rejected the challenge and upheld the rule, and the assessors appealed. In October of last year, the Third District of the California Court of Appeal unanimously upheld Judge Sapunor’s ruling. In a ruling issued today, the California Supreme Court denied further review, permitting the Court of Appeal’s decision to stand.

“Today’s ruling affirms that the Board of Equalization and the Legislature have the authority to enact sensible rules to keep Californians in their homes,” said Shannon Minter, Legal Director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “We are grateful to the Board and the Legislature for protecting same-sex couples and their families. Today’s ruling by the Supreme Court ensures that this protection is secure.”

After the lawsuit was filed, the California Legislature codified the Board of Equalization rule by enacting Senate Bill 565, authored by California State Sen. Carole Migden (D-San Francisco). The bill became effective January 1, 2006. The Court of Appeal decision, which the Supreme Court has declined to review, confirmed that both the Board of Equalization and the Legislature have the authority to define what constitutes a change of ownership among family members, including registered domestic partners.

“We are very pleased with the Court’s ruling today, reaffirming that a surviving domestic partner should not lose the family home because he or she must pay taxes that a surviving married spouse does not,” said Equality California Executive Director Geoff Kors. “The fact that this lawsuit moved forward in the first place further illustrates the need to grant same-sex couples the ability to marry in California. Then we would not have to waste time and tax-payer money to defend these kinds of very sensible and vital protections.”

“We’re thrilled the Supreme Court has recognized what the trial court and the appellate court have each already found to be true—that the Board of Equalization has the authority to grant gay and lesbian couples the same protections in a time of grief as everyone else,” said Lambda Legal Senior Staff Attorney Brian Chase. “No one should lose their home after the death of a partner.”

The case is Strong v. Board of Equalization. Dan Powell from Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP argued the case on behalf of EQCA and three same-sex couples at the Court of Appeal.

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