Texas Judge Set to Rule on Validity of Firefighter's Marriage to Transgendered Woman, Death Benefits

Secret Shocks Town, Sparks Feud
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A Texas judge is expected to announce this week that a transgendered widow's marriage to her deceased firefighter husband is invalid. Although the judge has apparently made a decision, court administrator Cassie Ritter said "no orders have been signed."

But Wharton County District Judge Randy Clapp circulated a draft order Tuesday that "indicated he was planning to declare the marriage void," said Ed Burwell, co-counsel for Heather Delgado, the ex-wife of the firefighter who challenged the legality of his subsequent marriage to Nikki Araguz. Wharton is about 60 miles southwest of Houston.

Araguz told ABC News that when she heard about the pending ruling, "it was like Thomas died all over again." She added, "We will absolutely appeal this ruling."

She and her attorneys have said they would take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

Read "20/20"'s original story on Nikki Araguz here.

Attorneys Phyllis R. Frye and Darrell M. Steidley, who are representing widowed Araguz, refuse to comment until the official order has been signed.

Thomas Araguz III was a fireman who died in July while fighting a five-alarm fire at an egg farm. His death began a controversial battle over $600,000 in death benefits when his mother, Simona Longoria, brought a suit against Nikki Araguz, 35, and argued that Araguz should not be allowed to collect any of the money.

Longoria said the money should go to the two young sons Thomas Araguz had with ex-wife Delgado, who joined Longoria in the suit against Araguz.

Much of the case's controversy has centered on Araguz's having been born a man -- as Justin Graham Purdue -- and undergone a sex-change operation two months after her 2008 marriage to Thomas. Delgado's attorney says that Nikki Araguz did not legally change her gender on her birth certificate until two weeks after her husband's death, meaning that the marriage between two men would be invalid in Texas at the time of the death because the state does not recognize same-sex marriages.

Thomas Araguz's family alleged in a lawsuit that a distraught Thomas had been separated from Araguz after discovering that his wife of two years had been born a man. Araguz has denied that her husband was unaware of her gender change, telling "20/20" she had no secrets from her husband.

"What I said was I have a birth defect and it could be identified as being transgendered," she said. "And he was like, 'What are you talking about?'"

She said she explained to her future husband that she was born a male and that he asked to see her body. She said she also revealed to Araguz that she was HIV positive.

She said he accepted her and their relationship continued to progress.

Delgado has declined to comment until the judge's order is signed, but attorney Burwell said his client is "very pleased" with the anticipated ruling. "The children have been living very modestly after they lost the emotional and financial support of their father," Burwell said. "[Heather] is ready for closure."

Although the order is expected to be signed by week's end, the appeals process could drag on for up four years. But the death benefits are paid by various benevolent organizations and the money would begin to be distributed after the court ruling. A trustee, not Delgado, would control disbursement of the funds.

ABC News' Sean Dooley contributed to this report.

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