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Taxes add sting to loss of domestic partner

Deadline nears for those seeking to roll back property reassessments.

June 16, 2009|Molly Hennessy-Fiske

Don Atkins shared his life with Ted Horzella for 37 years. For the last three years of Horzella's life, the men were registered with the state of California as domestic partners.

But when Horzella died in 2005 at the age of 76, Atkins was shocked to learn his annual property tax bill would rise from $1,400 to $10,400.

He paid an attorney $6,700 to fight his assessment and Los Angeles County an additional $20,000 in taxes. But his break didn't come until last year, when the state Legislature changed the law to exempt domestic partners reassessed between 2006 and 2000.

Atkins, 67, is among about a dozen homeowners in the county who have applied for an exemption from property reassessment after the death of a partner or the breakup of the relationship. It's a benefit long enjoyed by married couples and extended to new domestic partners in 2006, six years after the state began registering them.

But those who registered before that date must apply for reconsideration. The deadline is June 30.

At least 140 others statewide want their property reassessments reversed, according to a survey conducted last month by the office of state Sen. Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego), who sponsored the legislation.

"Nobody should lose their home or empty their bank account after having lost their other half," said Jennifer Pizer, senior counsel and Marriage Project director at Lambda Legal, which supported the legislation. "The point is everybody should have the same options."

Atkins said he felt overwhelmed when Horzella died. Although they both worked, Horzella wrote the checks and paid the bills. Horzella, who bought the house in 1971, had created a trust in the 1990s leaving the house to Atkins. By the time of Horzella's death the modest 1950s ranch home was valued at $116,000.

Atkins' property tax bill has been reduced to about $1,700, according to a spokesman for the Los Angeles County assessor's office, reflecting his earlier tax bill plus annual cost of living and local tax increases. The new law does not refund back taxes or attorneys' fees.

Atkins said that even when his property taxes surged he did not consider moving from his three-bedroom Silver Lake home. It still reflects his life with Horzella, full of memories and artwork accumulated during years of travel to Egypt, Thailand, Russia and other foreign lands.

"When you lose someone, all of a sudden you're by yourself. You start thinking about it -- am I OK? Will I be able to handle it all myself?" Atkins said.

Wednesday marks the one-year anniversary of the first gay marriages performed in California after a state Supreme Court ruling legalized gay marriage, a decision overturned at the ballot box five months later when Proposition 8 passed with 52% of the vote.

Atkins said that given the chance, he and Horzella would probably not have wed.

But he believes gay couples in domestic partnerships should have rights equal to those of married heterosexual couples.

"It's the word 'marriage' that they find so infuriating," Atkins said of opponents to gay marriage as he stood on his deck contemplating the dark waves of Silver Lake Reservoir below.

"We spent so much time here," Atkins said, "more than half my life."

Domestic partners whose property was reassessed between Jan. 1, 2000, and Jan. 1 2006, because of a change of ownership or the death of the owner can apply for an exclusion by visiting assessor.lacounty.gov or calling (213) 974-3434.

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molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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