No one should be at risk of losing their home because they are in a same-sex relationship. Despite good faith efforts, many registered domestic partners have not been treated equally under California’s property tax laws.
In the earlier days of the struggle for marriage equality, progressive cities and counties were the only governmental bodies that recognized same-sex partnerships and created domestic partner registries. In 1985, West Hollywood enacted the first such registry, with San Francisco following suit in 1989. When the State eventually offered its own registry in 2000, it was unclear to many whether those couples who had already registered with local governments would be automatically recognized at the State level.
Consequently, many couples who had registered at the local level did not register again with the State. Similar questions had arisen when same-sex marriage first became legal statewide in 2008, and then again in 2013 – particularly because some states had announced they would automatically convert domestic partnerships into marriages.
In 2005 and 2007, the State Legislature passed bills extending to domestic partners the property tax exclusion that had only applied to married couples; this exclusion allows a family home to be transferred between spouses without re-assessment. It is particularly important in the event of the death of a spouse, where the surviving spouse inherits the family home. Because assessed value is the sole determining factor of property taxes in California, re-assessment can result in significantly higher property taxes. And for an elderly individual living on a fixed income, this could mean the difference between keeping the home and being forced out.
Even well-meaning legislators were not always able to keep up with the confusions resulting from this unpredictable progress towards marriage equality. The 2005/2007 expansion of the interspousal exclusion only benefited same-sex couples registered at the state level beginning in 2000, overlooking those who had registered locally beginning as early as 1985 but had not re-registered with the State.
To this day, the injustices of the decades-long fight for marriage equality are still being corrected, but it gives me great pride to say that we have once again chipped away at those disparities. With the Governor’s signing of Assembly Bill 2663 on September 29, 2018, this tax exclusion will also apply to those who had been left out of the previous expansion.
The need to correct this disparity was brought to my attention by an elderly couple who were attempting to plan their retirement and had concerns about legal protections relating to their home. Like my now-husband and me, they had initially registered as domestic partners when that was all that was available. We easily could have found ourselves in a similar situation, overlooked by policymakers and forced to bear a substantial financial burden as a result. But it doesn’t matter that it could have happened to me. That is the very point of the fight for real equality – that all people will be treated with the same dignity and respect, and be afforded the same opportunity.
The challenge with something like the interspousal exclusion from property tax re-assessment is that it is an obscure element of a complex system of laws and regulations. An honest effort was made by the State Legislature to increase equality in the 2005/2007 policy changes, but it remains unfair that a benefit that is available to heterosexual couples regardless of whether they fully understand it, or even know of its existence, is not available to same-sex couples for exactly those same reasons. It is these types of double standards that we must seek to correct.
Although my role as County Assessor is predominantly administrative, it has provided me with insight into what needed to be corrected. My own experience showed how a couple could find themselves in this position only too easily, and I was inspired to rally support for new legislation. Thanks to the dedication of Assemblymember Laura Friedman, San Francisco Assessor Carmen Chu, and Equality California, the bill has now been enacted into law.
LGBT couples who had previously registered at the local level but not with the State beginning in 2000, and whose homes were unfairly re-assessed from 2000 to 2015, may soon file for a reversal of these re-assessments and receive prospective tax relief. The deadline to submit the “Claim for Reassessment Reversal for Local Registered Domestic Partners” to the County Assessor is June 30, 2022.
The inequalities of the past will never be fully erased. But by finding and remedying yet overlooked and unintended consequences of past discrimination, we will continue to move towards that truly fair and equal society for which we strive.
Jeffrey Prang is the Assessor of Los Angeles County. He previously served for nearly 18 years on the West Hollywood City Council, including for 4 terms as Mayor. He is a graduate of James Madison College at Michigan State University and lives in Los Angeles with his husband of 15 years, Ray Vizcarra.