Alaska same-sex couples file suit against unfair tax law

Alaska's gay and lesbian couples who are senior citizens or disabled veterans pay higher property taxes than similar heterosexual couples because we are treated like roommates or business partners instead of couples and families.

Today, three same-sex couples filed a lawsuit against Alaska and Anchorage challenging the unfair tax law.
"The state of Alaska provides a property tax exemption to senior citizens and disabled veterans up to $150,000 the value of their home," writes Shelby Carpenter, the LGBT Public Policy Director for the ACLU of Alaska.

"Those who qualify and who live with same-sex partners, rather than being treated as a family, are treated as roommates or business partners and are not granted the full exemption that would be offered to married couples. The ACLU of Alaska, ACLU National, and Davis Wright Tremaine LLP filed Schmidt v. Alaska today to challenge the Department of Law's decision not to grant the full tax benefits to same-sex couples."

"In short, this is a matter of fairness and equality: the actions of the state clearly discriminate against same-sex couples, and we look forward to the satisfactory resolution of this matter in a court of law."
Letters were sent to Attorney General Daniel Sullivan and the Office of the State Assessor in July 2009 and January 2010 in attempts to solve this problem. No resolution was found, and the complaint was filed.

Here's the press release from the ACLU of Alaska:
Three Alaska same-sex couples have filed a lawsuit today challenging the State of Alaska's tax-assessment rules, which discriminate against same-sex couples by denying them equal access to a property tax exemption for senior citizens and disabled veterans. Those who qualify and who live with same-sex partners are only permitted to, at most, half of the exemption available to opposite-sex married couples because they are treated as roommates rather than families.

The couples, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, are asking that the Alaska courts declare this discriminatory law to be unconstitutional.

"Alaska law is clear that denying committed same-sex couples the same rights as married opposite-sex couples is unconstitutional," said Tom Stenson of the ACLU of Alaska. "For senior couples and disabled vets, every bit of savings counts. These couples should not have to pay more taxes than other families."

Julie Schmidt, 67, and Gayle Schuh, 62, have been partners for 33 years. After retiring from careers in education and selling their home in Illinois, they moved to Alaska and now own a home in Eagle River. Their bank accounts and real estate holdings are all jointly owned. "We are disappointed to learn that the senior tax exemption treats homeowners in same-sex partnerships differently and we cannot receive the full benefit of the exemption," said Schuh.

Julie Vollick and Susan Bernard, who have been together for seven years and are raising four children, jointly purchased their Eagle River home in 2004. Vollick retired from the United States Air Force after 20 years of service, including tours in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and has service-related disabilities. "I was proud to serve our country and defend our democratic values," said Vollick. "All we want is the fairness I've fought to defend."

Fred Traber, 62 and Larry Snider, 69, have been together for 28 years, and have had long careers in Alaska, including small-business ownership and government employment. "We are proud of our relationship and are happy to stand up to ensure that our long-term commitment is treated fairly," Traber said.

"After building a life and a home together for many years, it's unfair that the government does not recognize these committed partners as the families that they are," said Leslie Cooper, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Project.

Each couple is denied full access to a $150,000 property tax exemption available to similarly situated opposite-sex married couples. The Alaska Supreme Court has already found that denying equal protection to same-sex couples violates the state constitution. But same-sex couples continue to be subjected to the discriminatory tax assessments.

"We have tried to resolve this issue with the State out of court with no success," said Roger Leishman of Davis Wright Tremaine. "We're hopeful that the courts will rule on the side of fairness."
Read the Schmidt v. Alaska complaint on the ACLU of Alaska website. Anyone in the LGBT community who has questions about the case or would like more information, please contact Shelby Carpenter.

1 comment:

jay in uk said...

Good to see this filing given willing resistance to a needed and appropriate state policy change.

It is also sad to see this as Gene and I found that incremental change was the course left open after the Alaska SC uncharacteristically mooted our case in 2000 after the 1998 constitutional amendment.

The SC majority opinion held we (personally) had not suffered from refusal to recognize our relationship and therefore we had no claim. A minority opinion saw the majority's opinion as failing to grasp a wider, systemic refusal of rights to the class of people we represented.

Time has shown how very wrong that majority opinion was as Schmidt v Alaska is filed. It is yet another 'specific injury' class action to undo one more part of that systemic discrimination in Alaska. This is precisely what Alaska's SC laid out as the path to eventual equality.

How we wish Alaska could have had then today's Iowa court leadership, and so reached a brave and correct decision. It didn't, however, leading Gene and I to feel stripped of our citizenship and contributing to our decision to leave the state we loved so much more than the country it is part of.

But that's not the point. Today, we wish the present litigants, legal team, and AkCLU the very best of outcome for all who live in that dearest of places on this good Earth.

From London, Jay and Gene Dugan-Brause

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