Death benefits of more than $600,000 are at stake in the widely publicized case of Nikki Araguz, a transgender woman whose husband, Thomas Araguz III, lost his life in an early July fire in Boling, Texas.
The mother and first wife of Thomas Araguz are suing for control of all death benefits for the two surviving children of the fallen Wharton Volunteer Fire Department captain, claiming the couple’s marriage was invalid.
The couple was married in August 2008 before Nikki Araguz, 35, who had been living as a woman for most of her life, had sex reassignment surgery later that year. Although the Araguz family claims Thomas was unaware of Nikki Araguz’s transgender status at the time of the marriage, she said he was fully aware of that, as well as of her medical history.
In a recent YouTube posting, Cristan Williams, the executive director of the Transgender Foundation of America, reported that even though Araguz’s husband had a life insurance policy that named her the beneficiary, the family has successfully filed an injunction to have that money withheld from her.
“It is an affront to common decency that Mrs. Araguz’s in-laws have turned this tragedy into a money-grab,” Williams told OutSmart. “I call upon common sense and decency to prevail in this case. Mrs. Araguz should be left alone to grieve the death of her heroic husband with the support of her friends and of her church.”
She finds the actions of Thomas Araguz’s family to be “repugnant,” and motivated by their bigotry against transgendered people. She said the injunction has placed all of the couple’s assets in escrow, even though Nikki Araguz was the breadwinner for the couple. Williams also claims that Araguz paid the child support for Thomas Araguz’s two children.
“Because she’s trans, all of her assets are frozen, she’s been ostracized from her home and community, and her in-laws are trying to steal any and all widow benefits while dragging her name through the mud on national media,” she said.
Williams said the Araguz family’s claims that Nikki Araguz is trying to keep the money for herself are false, which was supported by her lawyer, acclaimed transgender attorney Phyllis Frye. Thomas Araguz’s two children were aware of the marriage to Nikki, and their benefits have not been challenged.
“She and Thomas and the two boys have gotten along for a long time,” Frye said. “She’s not trying to cheat anyone out of anything.”
Frye told OutSmart that the case would be “a revisitation of Littleton.” In the 1999 Texas court case, Littleton v. Prange, Texas courts held that Christie Lee Littleton, a transgender woman, was ineligible to receive benefits from a malpractice case following the death of her husband, whom she married after sex reassignment surgery.
Chief Justice Phil Hardberger stated in the Littleton decision: “Texas statutes do not allow same-sex marriages” and that “male chromosomes do not change with either hormonal treatment or sex reassignment surgery. . . . Christie Littleton is a male. As a male, Christie cannot be married to another male. Her marriage to Jonathon was invalid, and she cannot bring a cause of action as his surviving spouse.”
Frye hopes the Araguz case will either overturn or severely weaken the Littleton case, and at press time, she had planned to file court papers related to the case on August 2.
“We have a good client or we wouldn’t be continuing with this case,” she said. “I’ve heard all of the stuff that’s been shouted out, and I’m not worried about it. We still think we have a worthwhile client and a worthwhile cause.” —Josef Molnar
Editor’s note: Nikki Araguz was formerly employed by OutSmart.