In what may be just the second case of its kind in the District, a gay man has filed a petition in D.C. Superior Court seeking a declaration affirming the existence of a common law marriage between him and the man he considered to be his spouse, who died one year ago.
An attorney representing D.C. resident Enrique Mendez filed the petition last December with the court’s Domestic Relations Branch as part of an estate dispute with the niece of his late partner, Miles Eric Lease.
The niece, Virginia resident Jennifer Lynn McKelvey, contends in court filings that Mendez isn’t entitled to any of Lease’s assets, including the house that the couple shared for four years. Documents filed with the Superior Court’s Probate Division show that the house at 4820 Iowa Ave., N.W., has an estimated value of $525,000.
The documents show that other property owned by Lease, including vehicles, household furnishings and personal effects bring the total value of his estate to $545,000.
A 13-page memorandum in support of a motion by McKelvey’s attorney asking the court to deny Mendez’s petition for common law marriage argues that Mendez fails to provide sufficient evidence that he and Lease were in a relationship equivalent to marriage under D.C. law.
Among other things, the memorandum says virtually all of the property the two allegedly shared was owned and listed under Lease’s name, including the house, a car and a truck that the two used together, and the auto insurance policy for the two vehicles.
The memo also points out that Lease and Mendez filed separate tax returns during the years Mendez claims the two were a couple and each listed on his return that he was “single” rather than married.
Noting that same-sex marriage became legal in D.C. in 2010, the memo states, “As ceremonial marriage was readily available to Lease and Mendez, Mendez’s claim must be closely scrutinized. Mendez’s claim lacks merit.”
It concludes, “While Mendez and Lease may have intended to become married in the future, there is legally insufficient evidence to establish that a [common law] marriage had actually occurred.”
Mendez and friends of the couple take strong exception to those arguments. Several of the couple’s friends who regularly hang out at the Fireplace, a Dupont Circle gay bar, told the Washington Blade that “everyone” who knew the two men considered them to be in a committed relationship that could be viewed as equal to a marriage.
“The word they used was ‘partners,’” said gay Episcopalian activist Charles Briody, who said he was a longtime friend of Lease’s. “But you knew the nature of their relationship was one that could be viewed like a marriage.”
The petition filed in court by Mendez’s attorney seeking a declaration of common law marriage appears to express those sentiments in legal terms.
“Mr. Mendez and Mr. Lease began their romantic relationship shortly after meeting on Feb. 13, 2010, with Mr. Mendez visiting Mr. Lease in Washington, D.C. and Mr. Lease visiting Mr. Mendez at his home in New York City,” the petition says.
“The couple took the next step in their romantic relationship in July 2010 when Mr. Mendez, at the request of Mr. Lease, moved from New York City to Washington, D.C.,” the petition says. “The couple immediately began residing together at 4820 Iowa Ave., N.W., sharing living expenses and jointly contributing to the household.”
The petition says the couple fulfilled the legal requirements of common law marriage in D.C. when they exchanged vows to one another in January 2013.
“In the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 2013 while the couple was on vacation in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, Mr. Lease asked Mr. Mendez to be his spouse from that moment forward,” the petition says. “Mr. Mendez replied in the affirmative, verbalizing his acceptance and intent to be Mr. Lease’s spouse from that moment forward,” it says.
“Mr. Mendez then asked Mr. Lease to be his spouse from that moment forward. Mr. Lease replied in the affirmative, verbalizing his acceptance and intent to be Mr. Mendez’s spouse from that moment forward,” the petition says.
The petition adds that Mendez and Lease “presented themselves as spouses or ‘partners’ to friends, family and neighbors throughout the duration of their marriage.”
Lease died unexpectedly of a heart-related ailment on June 27, 2014 at the age of 66, according to information released by his longtime friend Stephen Crowley.
Court records show that he did not leave a will and that the court approved McKelvey, the niece, as the personal representative of the estate after Lease’s mother and sister – who are the next of kin – submitted affidavits waiving their right to be named personal representative. Under D.C. probate law, the personal representative plays a role similar to an executor of an estate.
Mendez’s petition for a common law marriage declaration, which was filed by attorney Meaghan Hearn of the local law firm Ackerman Brown, says there is a dispute between Mendez and the Lease family over whether a marital relationship exists and whether Mendez is “entitled to property from Mr. Lease’s estate as his surviving spouse.”
“Mr. Mendez is in need of a declaration from this Court so that he may intervene in the Probate proceeding to, among other things, challenge the appointment of the Personal Representative,” the petition states.
In the memorandum opposing the petition, attorney Christopher Glaser of the law firm Jackson & Campbell, says the firm obtained credit card records for Mendez that show he had been making purchases in Raleigh, N.C., at the time Mendez claims in his petition that he and Lease exchanged marital vows in Rehoboth Beach.
“[I]t is apparent that Mendez was not in Rehoboth Beach when he claims,” Glaser states in his memo in support of the motion seeking denial of the petition for common law marriage. “Mendez told no one prior to the purported Jan. 1, 2013 exchange of vows that he and Lease were discussing marriage.”
Hearn, Mendez’s attorney, declined to comment on any aspect of the case when contacted by the Blade. She said in an email to the Blade that she would be filing Mendez’s response and rebuttal to Glaser’s motion for summary judgment calling for denial of the common law marriage petition within a week and in time to meet a court deadline of June 29.
Meanwhile a court status hearing on the case is scheduled for June 30.
An earlier document filed in court by Hearn responding to written questions raised by Glaser points to Mendez as saying he could not remember the exact dates on which he and Lease discussed their marital commitments, suggesting that an incorrect date did not negate the marriage-like commitment the two men had for each other.
In the petition seeking the common law marriage declaration Hearn also points out that Lease’s mother was not accepting of Lease as a gay son.
“Upon information and belief, Mr. Lease kept his family at arms’ length due in part to his mother’s disapproval of his sexual orientation,” the petition says.
“Although Mr. Lease’s family was aware that Mr. Mendez and Mr. Lease were at the very least in a romantic relationship and that the couple resided together, Mr. Lease’s family purposefully excluded Mr. Mendez from participation in planning his husband’s funeral and burial arrangements,” the petition says.
It could not immediately be determined when Superior Court Judge Kimberley Knowles, who is presiding over the case, was expected to issue a ruling on the petition for a common law marriage declaration.
Michelle Zavos, an attorney who practices family law pertaining to the D.C.-area LGBT community, said she knows of at least one other case in which a D.C. Superior Court judge issued a common law marriage declaration for a same-sex couple since the time same-sex marriage became legal in D.C. in 2010.