Friday, in a landmark decision, the Illinois Court of Appeals for the First District ruled that courts may not discriminate against unmarried couples by preventing them from enforcing property claims against one another when they separate, ending the state’s 35-year-long policy of closing the courthouse doors to unmarried couples.
The unanimous decision, written by Justice Margaret Stanton McBride, held that Illinois’ “public policy to treat unmarried partnerships as illicit no longer exists” and that National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) client Eileen Brewer may “proceed with her claims against her former domestic partner” regarding the shared property they built up during their 26 years together. The court held that the rule established in 1979 by the Illinois Supreme Court in Hewitt v. Hewitt, which barred courts from hearing property disputes between unmarried couples, has been reversed over the past 35 years by major legislative advancements whose goal is to treat all families equally.
The lawsuit began in 2010, when Brewer’s former partner filed a lawsuit to partition the family home. Although the couple had built a life together, intertwining their finances, sharing a home, and raising three children, the trial court applied the Hewitt decision to rule that Brewer could not bring counterclaims seeking a fair share of their jointly acquired assets because the couple had not been married. Friday’s opinion vacated the trial court’s ruling and allowed Brewer’s claims to go forward.
In addition to NCLR, Brewer is represented by attorney Angelika Kuehn. An amicus brief in support of Brewer was filed by Professor Nancy Polikoff, Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund, and the ACLU of Illinois.
Said NCLR Legal Director Shannon Minter, who argued the appeal: “Today’s ruling is an important victory for Illinois families. As the Court recognized, Illinois’s current laws and policies support fair treatment of all families, not just those based on marriage. We are thrilled for our client and for the many other people who will benefit from this ruling in the years ahead.”
Added Angelika Kuehn: “This decision eliminates an outdated and harmful rule that has no basis in Illinois’ current legislative policies. I am proud that today Illinois joined the 47 other states that have ended this outdated policy of discrimination against unmarried couples. The Illinois legislature has done so much to extend legal protections to all families over the past decades, and today the Court acknowledged the enormous progress we have made.”