July 20, 2010— -- Days after losing their son in the line of duty, the family of a fallen Texas firefighter is battling his wife in court, saying her status as a transgender woman makes her inelligible to receive his death benefits.
The family of Thomas Araguz III, of Wharton, Texas, has alleged in a lawsuit filed eight days after his July 4 death that he had been separated from his wife Nikki, nursing feelings of betrayal after learning that his wife of two years had been born a man.
"He was distraught. It was overwhelming," said Chad Ellis, a Houston lawyer hired by Araguz's mother. "It was extremely difficult for him."
Araguz died while fighting a fire at an egg farm in Boling, Texas. He was 37. He died without a will and under Texas law, probate courts typically divide a decedent's assets and benefits between the spouse and children. But Ellis said Araguz's mother, who is working with his first wife in this matter, wants all of his benefits to go to his sons.
Ellis said he will challenge the validity of the couple's marriage in probate court as a means to redirect any benefits that may have gone to Nikki Araguz to her husband's 7- and 10-year-old sons from his previous marriage.
His legal argument, Ellis said, is based on both the state's laws against same-sex marriage and a separate 1999 state ruling.
"If you were born a man and have sexual reassignment surgery, you remain legally a man," Ellis said of the 1999 court ruling. "You have the chromosomes of a male. You don't have a uterus."
Ellis, who said Araguz's mother has asked him to speak on her behalf as they grieve for their son, said Araguz learned of his wife's transgender status only after she gave a deposition on April 28 as part of a family court matter between Araguz and his first wife regarding their children.
"She said she never told him that she was born Justin Graham Purdue," he said.
"That's literally the moment he found out," Ellis said. "They separated within a week."
Nikkie Araguz, 35, could not immediately be reached for comment. A search of public records under the names Nikki Araguz and Justin Graham Purdue turned up several criminal convictions for offenses includnig driving while intoxicted and issuing bad checks. The Houston Chronicle quotes her as saying that her husband knew everything about her personal history when they were married in 2008.
She told the paper they were not separated when Araguz was killed.
"We had a completely honest marriage, a 100 percent loving, honest marriage," she said. "I am grieving the loss of my husband and best friend."
According to the lawsuit, Nikki Araguz's name was legally changed in 1996. The lawsuit also notes that in petitioning the court for the name change, Justin Purdue filed a statement that he was "a woman with male anatomy working toward a sex change."
A longtime friend of Nikki Araguz, who declined to be identifiied, told ABCNews.com that her status as a transgender woman was known to her friends and family.
"I've known since she was 18," the friend said, calling the lawsuit's claims that Thomas Araguz only recently found out "not accurate."
Widow, Husband's Family Due in Court Friday
Both sides are due in a Wharton probate court on Friday, when hearings on the suit begin to determine if Nikki has already benefited from her husband's death. Ellis said he has received confirmation the lawsuit was served, but has not yet gotten a response from Nikki Araguz or an attorney.
A judge, he said, has already granted an emergency restraining order to freeze any funds relating to Thomas Araguz's death and to prevent Nikki Araguz from removing any property from their house.
Ellis said he did not know exactly how much Nikki Araguz would stand to gain from her husband's death benefits, but given that he died in the line of duty, "they would be substantial."
And if anyone decided to file a wrongful death lawsuit relating to the July 4 fire, he said, "We're talking real money."
Laws regarding transgender marriage vary from state to state, with some allowing a person to live legally in the gender they feel is appropriate.
But Masen Davis, executive director of the San Francisco-based Transgender Law Center, said it was unfortunate that Araguz's family was questioning the sanctity of his marriage.
"This story just seems to represent such a tragedy for everyone involved," Davis said. "Unfortunately, this situation highlights many injustices faced by transgendered families in this country."