Court revives transgender widow's fight for benefits
Feb. 17, 2014 at 8:02 a.m.
Updated Feb. 16, 2014 at 8:17 p.m.
HOUSTON (AP) - A Texas appeals court Thursday overturned a judge's ruling that had voided the marriage of a transgender widow whose firefighter husband died battling a blaze.
The 13th Texas Court of Appeals sent the case of Nikki Araguz back to the lower court, saying "there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding (Araguz's) sex and whether the marriage was a same-sex marriage."
In 2011, state District Judge Randy Clapp in Wharton County ruled that the marriage between Nikki Araguz and her husband Thomas Araguz was "void as a matter of law."
Thomas Araguz's mother and his first wife had challenged the marriage's validity, arguing the fallen firefighter's estate should go to his two sons because Nikki Araguz was born a man, and Texas does not recognize same-sex marriage.
Nikki Araguz, 38, had argued in court she had done everything medically and legally possible to show she is female and was legally married under Texas law and that she's entitled to widow's benefits.
Kent Rutter, Nikki Araguz's attorney, said his client was very pleased by Thursday's ruling.
"This decision recognizes that transgender Texans have the right to marry the person that they love," he said.
Attorneys for Simona Longoria, Thomas Araguz's mother, and Heather Delgado, his ex-wife, did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.
Longoria and her family have said Thomas Araguz learned of his wife's gender history just before his death and had planned to end the marriage.
But Nikki Araguz, who remarried in 2013, has insisted Thomas Araguz fully supported her through the surgical process to become a woman. She underwent surgery two months after they were married in 2008. Thomas Araguz died July 2010 while fighting a fire at an egg farm near Wharton, located 60 miles southwest of Houston. He was 30.
In its 26-page ruling, the three-judge panel of the Corpus Christi-based appeals court wrote that Clapp erred by essentially saying in his ruling that Nikki Araguz was a man at the time of her husband's death.
Attorneys for Longoria and Delgado had argued Nikki Araguz was born with male sex organs and had such organs at the time of her marriage, making it invalid.
The appeals court said more expert testimony on this issue is needed as the only such testimony presented was an affidavit by one of Nikki Araguz's doctors, who wrote that she was medically and psychologically female as a result of her compliance with the standards of care adopted by the World Professional Association of Transgender Health.
The three-judge panel also wrote that changes made in 2009 to the Texas Family Code that allowed transgendered people to use proof of their sex change to get a marriage license legislatively overruled a previous court decision that had been used as legal precedent in such cases. In that 1999 case, a San Antonio woman's wrongful-death claim brought on behalf of her husband was thrown out, with a court ruling that although the woman had undergone a sex-change operation, she was actually a man, based on her original birth certificate.