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Death taxes become Pa. gay marriage battle front

| Monday, Oct. 28, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

HARRISBURG — Two women in separate cases have challenged Pennsylvania's policy that same-sex couples are not covered under the inheritance tax waiver that applies to heterosexual couples.

Barbara Alma Baus filed a petition in Northampton County's orphan's court on Friday, saying she married Catherine Burgi-Rios in Connecticut in 2011 and should not have to pay a 15 percent levy on Burgi-Rios' estate.

Meanwhile, a Department of Revenue Board of Appeals hearing officer this week will consider a protest of the inheritance taxes charged to the estate of Jeanne Schwartz. Schwartz' partner, Nancy Nixon, is seeking to overturn a $21,000 tax bill.

“It is a lot of money to me,” said Nixon, 68, of Carlisle. “The main thing to me is that gay people should not be discriminated in this way. A relationship that is equal to a marriage in every sense should be treated as a marriage by the state.”

Nixon said she and Schwartz, who worked in social services at a hospital, were together from 1981 until Schwartz died in April 2012 from an extended illness. They were never married in a state that permits same-sex unions.

She said she plans to pursue the matter further if she loses before the hearing officer, who will hold a hearing on Nixon's appeal on Wednesday.

A 1996 state law defines marriage as between one man and one woman.

“In its administration of the tax laws, the Department of Revenue is required to follow the laws of Pennsylvania,” said Elizabeth Brassell, the agency's press secretary.

Baus and Burgi-Rios lived together for 15 years before they were married in Connecticut. Burgi-Rios died in September 2012 from complications related to leukemia.

The petition by Baus, a Bethlehem resident, challenges the state's same-sex ban on constitutional grounds. The tax bill is about $11,000.

“This is someone who lost a spouse, and I think a lot of people can relate,” said Baus' lawyer, Tiffany Palmer. She said Pennsylvania is essentially nullifying the marriage and taxing Baus as though she didn't even know her spouse or have a financial relationship with her.

The lawsuit challenges the ban based on a clause in the state constitution requiring tax laws to apply equally, on the state's Equal Rights Amendment and on equal protection and due process grounds.

Pennsylvania's inheritance tax rate is zero for surviving spouses or for transfers to parents from children who are 21 or younger. It is 4.5 percent on transfers to direct descendants or lineal heirs, 12 percent on transfers to siblings and 15 percent for all others.

The tax-related actions are among a group of federal and state cases challenging the same-sex marriage ban. The challenges occur in the aftermath of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that involved Edith Windsor, an 84-year-old widow who challenged a $363,000 tax bill on her late wife's estate.

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