Rachel Fish

To Access Her Inheritance, A California Woman Had To Prove That Being Transgender Is Not A Mental Disability

After her mother's death, Rachel Fish had to fight for control over her life.

When Rachel Fish went to withdraw her inheritance in late March 2015, her thoughts were on the townhouse she and her wife were going to buy with the money, the first home either of them would have owned. She wasn’t thinking about the specifics of the will, and certainly not about her transition, which she completed eight years before.

Rachel’s mother had passed away 18 months prior and her modest estate had been divided evenly among her four children. It was only this day, in the offices of Gasber Financial Advisors in Folsom, California, that Rachel, 50, learned her portion was held in a special needs trust administered by her brother, Robert. According to the terms, because Rachel had undergone “a sex change” and was receiving hormone therapy, she was incapable of providing for her own care or managing her finances.

Rachel was incredulous: She was an independent, able-bodied adult barred from accessing her inheritance for no other reason than being transgender. Her financial advisor was also stunned since, by law, Robert was supposed to disclose this arrangement at the time of their mother’s death.

According to court documents, Robert—who declined to respond to repeated requests for an interview—disputes Rachel’s account of when she was made aware of the trust, though he did not submit any evidence supporting his claim. Robert also maintained that he and his mother fully accepted Rachel’s transition and were not attempting to punish her for it.

But the language in the trust is damning:

The beneficiary has undergone a sex change that requires constant administration of hormones… characterized by manifestation of female characteristics along with erratic behavior that surfaces periodically and, among other things, often results in profligate and imprudent spending.

Courtesy of Rachel Fish

Rachel makes a comfortable living as a manager at a large construction company in Fresno, and has never required special care or received government benefits. Although she acknowledges she had significant credit-card debt in the past, it occurred primarily before her transition and certainly not because of it.

“I didn’t care about myself, so I wasn’t responsible about my finances,” she admits, “But that changed after I transitioned.”

Regardless, debt is not legally understood as a disabling condition requiring specialized care, nor do hormones cause erratic behavior in trans women. Her transition, Rachel maintained, should have no bearing on her ability to handle her finances.

A special needs trust is designed to provide for someone with significant mental or physical disabilities. The language used—”basic living needs” and “the cost of care”—is suited for people with muscular dystrophy, Down’s Syndrome, or other conditions that may interfere with an ability to hold down a job or maintain a household.

It’s not generally intended for a healthy, employed trans woman who pays about $60 a month for her hormones.

After several weeks, the sting from the incident subsided and Rachel decided to call her brother and ask him to release the funds to her. The conversation did not go well: Robert refused to dissolve the trust and, according to Rachel, guilted her about her strained relationship with their mother. (Rachel maintains her transition was a source of tension, but that the two had improved things steadily over the years).

He also lectured her on previous financial missteps. “He made it all about how much I’d hurt my mom and going back over everything I’d ever done wrong,” she recalls. “Money she’d lent me, how I never visited her, and on and on.”

During their talk, neither one directly addressed the language in the will dealing with her transition—it’s unclear who was responsible for describing it as “a manifestation of female characteristics along with erratic behavior.” Although the trust was in their mother’s name, Rachel believes Robert was the one making the majority of decisions toward the end of her life.

During the legal battle, neither Robert nor her other brothers ever directly spoke about the document’s language. Rachel’s oldest brother, Thomas, was supportive, but he and Luis, their youngest sibling, refused to get involved. The only way Rachel could gain control of her inheritance was to hire a lawyer.

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In a preliminary hearing, Judge David De Alba said he was inclined to grant her petition to dissolve the special needs portion of the trust. But Robert was slow to make a full accounting of the funds—instead, he filed numerous settlement offers that fell far short of what Rachel was due.

Finally, last fall, Robert offered a payout of about $113,000, a figure high enough Rachel decided it wasn’t worth fighting anymore. But she had racked up nearly $45,000 in legal fees and had to put her dream home on hold for more than a year.

“What would I have done if I hadn’t had the resources to fight? Honestly, I don’t really know,” she says. “There was a bit of a contingency that I could renounce my claim to the trust and then it would have gone to my daughter, but, I would have still have had legal fees. I’m just happy that I was in a position to take up the legal challenge.”

Many others aren’t so fortunate: Transgender Americans are significantly more likely to live below the poverty line disproportionally poor and face legal job discrimination in 32 states.

“This is all now long behind me,” Rachel says wistfully. “My relationship with Robert is done and I will not put any more effort into it. I’m moving forward with my life and focused on what matters most—my daughter, my wife, the family that I do have, my career, and most of all, finding happiness.”

Evan Urquhart is a freelance writer covering LGBT issues.
@e_urq