Text size

Same-sex partners are eligible to be considered common-law spouses according to the inheritance law, Nazareth District Court ruled yesterday in a precedent-setting decision.

According to the decision, taken by a majority of two judges to one, an individual who maintained a joint household for some 40 years with his partner, who died four years ago, is eligible to inherit that partner's apartment even though a will had never been written concerning the matter.

The relationship between the plaintiff, 77-year-old I.M., and his partner S.R., began in the early 1960s when they worked together at the Italian Embassy in Tel Aviv. A romantic relationship developed between the two over the years. S.R. purchased an apartment in 1972 in which they both lived.

In 2000, S.R. died without formally leaving the apartment to his partner. As he has no close family members who could be considered heirs, S.R.'s property must be transferred to the state, according to law.

I.M. asked the family court to recognize him as the common-law spouse of S.R. When his request was not granted, I.M. appealed to the district court.

The legal debate revolved around a clause in the inheritance law, which states that in the case of "a man and a woman who live a family life in a joint household, yet who are not married to each other," the surviving partner is entitled to benefit from the will as would an heir, as if the couple had been legally married.

The state claimed that it is impossible to interpret the words "man and woman" as relating to two partners of the same sex, and thus the clause does not apply to homosexual and lesbian common-law couples.

Nevertheless, Judges Nissim Maman and Gabriella (De Leo) Levy ruled that since the legislation of the inheritance law in 1965, "there have been wide-reaching changes in interpretation, and legal rulings have widened the meaning of the term `partners' to include common-law partners, as well as same-sex common-law partners."

Family without marriage

These changes have also influenced the interpretation of "man and woman" because a family unit "can also be created without marriage and also if the two partners are of the same sex," according to the ruling.

The judges also ruled that the phrase "man and woman" was not intended to deprive homosexuals and lesbians of common-law status, but rather simply to provide the right of inheritance to common-law couples who are not married.

"The legislature did not even give its opinion on the status of same-sex common-law couples, not because it sought to revoke their rights, but rather because the existence of a same-sex family was not even considered," the court said.

Maman said the expression "man and woman" does not mean "not a man and a man" or "not a woman and a woman," but rather "a couple who is not married."

It is for this reason, Maman wrote, that even though "we do not intend to create a new status ... there is no reason that recognition of the inheritance rights of same-sex common-law couples not be seen as a necessary step."

The dissenting judge wrote that "the letter of the law is clear and unequivocal and you cannot read into it any meaning other than what is written - `man and woman.' The letter of the law cannot tolerate the interpretation according to which this would be `man and man.'"

I.M.'s attorney, Dori Spivak, said in response to the court's ruling: "We live in a world where same-sex common-law couples are common-law in all respects and the homosexual family unit has now secured a standing equal to every other family unit."