A lesbian widow has filed suit against the Commonwealth for discrimination in the state’s inheritance law. Barbara Baus wed her partner Catherine Burgi-Rios in Connecticut and then filed for spousal coverage when her partner died. Pennsylvania refused to recognize their legal marriage and assessed her the same rate as for strangers. The constitution requires all states to recognize other state’s laws but in this case Pennsylvania is refusing to recognize Connecticut’s marriage equality law.
From the law firm representing Baus:
Widow files suit seeking equal tax treatment for same-sex marriages
Easton, PA – A widow residing in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania has filed a lawsuit seeking equal treatment
under Pennsylvania’s inheritance tax law. Barbara Baus and Catherine (“Cathy”) Burgi-Rios resided
together for more than 15 years when they married on April 29, 2011 in Fairfield County, Connecticut.
Cathy died on September 21, 2012 at the age of 55, as a result of complications from her year-long
battle with leukemia.
Barbara and Cathy had a church wedding in 1999 and supported each other emotionally and
financially. They jointly owned a home, cars and bank accounts. Cathy named Barbara as her executor
and sole beneficiary of all of her assets in her Will. Barbara filed the required Inheritance Tax Return
with the Register of Wills of Northampton County, noting her status as Cathy’s spouse. She claimed the
spousal rate for Pennsylvania’s inheritance tax, which is zero. The Pennsylvania Department of Revenue
responded by stating her marriage is “not valid in Pennsylvania” and assessed taxes due under the rate
that applies to legal strangers, which is 15%, the highest rate of inheritance tax charged in Pennsylvania.
Barbara is challenging the taxes that the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue is seeking to
collect through a Petition filed on Friday with the Orphan’s Court of Northampton County by her
attorneys Benjamin Jerner and Tiffany Palmer at Jerner & Palmer, P.C., a law firm focusing its practice
on LGBT estate planning, estate administration and family law. Co-counsel for Barbara are Stanley A.
Pelli of Alexander & Pelli, LLC and Leonore F. Carpenter, Assistant Professor at Temple University
Beasley School of Law.
Barbara’s Petition claims that the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue’s determination that it
will not recognize her marriage and apply the tax rate for spouses violates both the Pennsylvania and the
United States Constitutions. Specifically, Barbara’s suit raises the unique issue that Pennsylvania’s
Defendant of Marriage Act violates the Uniformity Clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution, which
states that all taxes in Pennsylvania must be assessed upon the same classes in a uniform fashion. “This
case is a clear example of how Pennsylvania’s DOMA injures – in a very real way – same-sex couples
who have valid marriages,” said Benjamin Jerner, of Jerner & Palmer, P.C., one of Barbara’s attorneys.
“The Pennsylvania Constitution does not permit the Commonwealth to tax same-sex married couples
and opposite-sex married couples differently for inheritance tax,” said Tiffany Palmer, another attorney
“I just want my marriage to be respected like any other marriage. It is hard enough to cope with
the loss of a spouse, but to have my marriage treated with such disregard is heartbreaking,” said Barbara.
“I know standing up for our equal rights is what Cathy would have wanted me to do.”