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Transgender Woman Wins New Trial on Inheritance From Her Husband

Posted on: February 14th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

A three-judge panel of the Texas Court of Appeals ruled on February 13 that Nikki Araguz, a transgender woman who is the surviving spouse of Texas firefighter Thomas Araguz, is entitled to a trial of the question whether her marriage with Thomas was valid. Thomas died without a will, and his mother and ex-wife (suing on behalf of his children) contend that the marriage was not valid and thus cannot provide the basis for an inheritance for Nikki. Estate of Thomas Trevino Araguz III, 2014 Tex. App. LEIS 1573 (Tex. App., 13th Dist.).

Born Justin Graham Purdue in California in 19775, Nikki Araguz grew up in the Houston area and self-identified as female from a very early age. Indeed, evidence related by Chief Justice Rogelio Valdez in the opinion for the court suggests that Araguz always dressed as female. At eighteen, Araguz was diagnosed as having gender dysphoria, and began treatment, including hormone therapy and living as a woman. When she was 21, she filed a petition in the Texas District Court for a name change to Nikki Paige Purdue, which was granted by the court in 1996. She then filed an application in California to amend her birth certificate to show her new name, which was granted. She used the new birth certificate when she obtained a driver’s license in Kansas identifying her as female, and then used that license to get a Texas driver’s license, also indicating she was female.

On August 19, 2008, Nikki and Thomas Araguz applied for a marriage license in Wharton County, Texas. The license identifies Nikki as “woman.” The wedding was held on August 23. At that time, Nikki had transitioned in all respects except one: she had not yet undergone sex reassignment surgery, a procedure for which she had been saving money all her adult life. In October 2008, a few months after her marriage, she had the procedure, which was performed in Texas by Dr. Marci Bowers.

On April 28, 2010, Thomas gave a deposition in a family court proceeding involving the custody of the children from his first marriage, in which he stated, under oath, that he did not know that Nikki had undergone genital reassignment surgery, or that Nikki was “formerly male” or had undergone any type of “gender surgery.” Thomas testified in the deposition that Nikki always represented herself as female before their marriage. In the current proceeding, Nikki alleges that she and Thomas had agreed to take the position that she was female from birth, but Thomas was fully aware of the facts when they were married.

Thomas died on July 3, 2010, without a will. Less than two weeks later, Nikki filed a petition in San Francisco, California, Superior Court, seeking a new California birth certificate specifically designating her as female, which was evidently a detail she had overlooked when a decade earlier she had applied for a birth certificate showing her new name. This was granted by the court and California issued a new birth certificate designating Nikki as “female” on August 30, 2010, almost two months after her husband died.

Under rules of intestate succession, a surviving wife is the principal heir of a man who does not leave a will. If there are surviving children, the estate is split between the widow and the children. If there is no surviving spouse, a surviving parent may inherit, and surviving children are legal heirs as well. In this case, Thomas’s mother, who otherwise would not inherit, filed a lawsuit seeking appointment as administrator of her son’s estate and asking the court to declare that his marriage to Nikki was a “void” same-sex marriage, barred by Texas law. Thomas’s ex-wife also filed suit on behalf of the two minor children, also arguing that the marriage with Nikki was void.

In response, Nikki sought to vindicate her claim to be a surviving spouse, arguing that she was a woman at the time of her marriage. In support of this claim, she presented an affidavit from Dr. Collier Cole, a gender identity expert, who asserted that Nikki would be recognized as a woman at the time she married.

Another fact that is not part of Nikki’s story is also relevant. In 1999, the Texas Court of Appeals ruled in Littleton v. Prange that a marriage between a transsexual woman and a man was void as a same-sex marriage, regardless whether the woman had fully transitioned before the marriage. The Littleton court insisted that one’s gender as identified at birth was fixed for purposes of the marriage law, because no medical or surgical procedure could alter one’s genetic makeup and somebody born male could not be provided with female reproductive capacity. In 2009, the Texas legislature amended the state’s Family Code to provide that “an original or certified copy of a court order relating to the applicant’s name change or sex change” could be “proof of identity and age” for purposes of getting a marriage license. Thus, an important question in this case is whether the 2009 amendment had overruled Littleton v. Prange, in effect authorizing marriages between transsexual women and men (or vice versa).

The trial judge in Wharton County had granted summary judgment to Thomas’s mother and ex-wife, and denied Nikki’s motion for summary judgment, evidently finding that Littleton was a controlling precedent and that, as she still had male genitals when she was married, this was a void marriage between two men.

The court of appeals disagreed. The court found that the 2009 amendment had actually overruled Littleton, making it possible for a transgender woman to marry a man by using a court order relating to a name change or sex change as “proof of identity.” This overruling took place after the marriage of Nikki and Thomas, but before Thomas’s death. This does not end the case by any means, because the parties hotly contest whether Nikki was a woman at any relevant time from the date of the marriage until the date of Thomas’s death. Nikki had not had gender reassignment surgery until after the marriage, and did not obtain a new birth certificate specifically designating her as female until after Thomas’s death. It seems clear from the facts that Thomas’s affidavit given in the custody proceeding was false, as it is unlikely that a man who married a woman who had male genitals at the time of the marriage and who did not undergo sex reassignment surgery until several months into the marriage could possibly be “unaware” that his spouse had previously been a man or had undergone a gender-related medical procedure.

The Texas legislature’s 2009 amendment does not provide any clarity or guidance by setting specific standards for determining when a court can give an order relating to a sex change, so a determination must be made, probably as part of further litigation in this case, whether a person with male genitals can be considered female for purposes of the marriage law, based on the court order granting a name change with the corroborating evidence of a birth certificate indicating the new name and a driver’s license designating the individual as female. Dr. Cole, the only expert witness in the case so far, testified by affidavit that the determination of gender does not depend on surgical alteration, the most important factors being that the individual had been diagnosed with gender dysphoria and had lived in the preferred sex for at least a year, during which hormone treatment was taking place. The plaintiffs in this case (the mother and the ex-wife) had not presented any expert witness to counter this testimony, but the court said that the undisputed evidence that Nikki still had male genitals at the time of the marriage was sufficient to place in issue what her sex was at that time, at least for purposes of a trial as to the validity of the marriage. Texas recognizes the concept of informal marriage, under which the marriage of Nikki and Thomas could be valid if Nikki was legally female at any time before Thomas’s death, even if she would not have been considered female at the time of the marriage ceremony.

The court stated that the concept of gender dysphoria was not a matter of common knowledge, or generally within the expected knowledge of typical jurors or judges, so it was necessary to consider expert testimony in determining the answers to the factual questions in this case. Consequently, it was error for the trial judge to grant summary judgment, especially when the only expert testimony in the record, from Dr. Cole, supported Nikki’s claim that she was female when she married Thomas. It may be that as this case is litigated the Texas courts will give legal effect to the Standards of Care recognized by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, under which Nikki would be deemed female as of the date of her wedding. Clearly, this court finds that the 2009 statutory amendment overruled Littleton, so it is possible for somebody who has been through a “sex change” — whatever that involves — to marry consistent with their gender identity.

Other lawsuits are pending in Texas challenging the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. Were the ban to be invalidated, same-sex marriages would not be void in Texas, and it would be clear that transgender people can marry any willing partner, regardless of sex, who is interested in marrying them and not otherwise disqualified by virtue of age, disability, or close legal relationship. But until marriage equality becomes a reality in Texas, this case may serve to provide the basis for transgender people to marry the partner of their choice.