A Vancouver gay man lost his claim to a portion of his closeted lover’s estate Aug 8, when a BC Supreme Court judge ruled their relationship didn’t meet the requirements of the law.
Reza Chowdhury, 42, told the court that he was Peter Argenti’s common-law spouse based on the clandestine, intimate relationship he claims the two shared for 14 years.
Justice Marion Allan disagreed, saying their relationship didn’t meet the criteria for common-law spouses since they didn’t live together during the two years leading up to Argenti’s death.
“The evidence is resoundingly clear that Chowdhury and Argenti did not enjoy a marriage-like relationship for the two years preceding [Argenti’s death],” Allan ruled.
As a result, Chowdhury receives nothing from Argenti’s estate, nor any part of the East Vancouver home the two shared from 1993 to 1996.
“I have no hesitation in finding that Chowdhury lived at the property between 1993 and 1996,” Allan wrote in her decision, “and that during that time they actively pursued a same-sex relationship.”
But, she found, Argenti kicked Chowdhury out of the home in 1996, and later willed the home to his youngest daughter, Tina. He made no mention of Chowdhury in his will.
“Even if that two-year period could be described as a spousal-like relationship —despite Argenti’s adamant determination that they not be considered partners by family and friends —it came to an unhappy end in 1996,” Allan ruled.
Chowdhury maintains that he and Argenti continued to see each other after he left the East Vancouver home, and that Argenti even partially paid his rent in a series of cheap apartments where he would regularly visit Chowdhury.
Chowdhury also claims that he continued to sleep at Argenti’s house on a regular basis, though he had to act as if he were only visiting when friends dropped by.
He had no keys to the home when Argenti was taken to hospital.
Argenti was married to his wife when he met Chowdhury and remained closeted until he died in 2003 after cancer surgery and complications from a stroke.
According to the trial testimony, “Argenti’s family and friends were stunned by the realization that he had been a closet homosexual. For 66 years, he had portrayed himself as a heterosexual man, a ‘macho’ longshoreman, and a member of the Italian, Catholic community.”
“There is no question that Chowdhury devoted his life to Argenti for many years,” Allan found. “Understandably, he was hurt and upset by the complete failure of Argenti’s family and friends to accord him any recognition as an intimate friend.”
“They ignored me,” Chowdhury testified. “Maybe because I am a homosexual man.”
Born in Pakistan, Chowdhury testified that “at an early age he realized that he was only attracted to men over 50.”
He understood that such a relationship would not be accepted in his culture and ran away from home. He lived in Germany, Japan and then Thailand where he obtained an American passport in a false name.
In 1990, he came to Canada and was caught disposing of his passport at the Vancouver International Airport. He applied for asylum on the basis that he would be prosecuted for his sexual orientation if he were to return home. Five years later, he was granted refugee status.
Shortly after arriving in Canada, Chowdhury met Argenti, 29 years his senior, walking along Robson St. The two passed one another and made eye contact. Chowdhury claims that they experienced “love at first sight,” and immediately started a sexual relationship.
Argenti was not comfortable with Chowdhury having roommates and urged him to get his own apartment that he then subsidized.
Chowdhury testified that after Argenti divorced his wife in 1993, he asked Chowdhury to move in with him, but he never introduced him as his spouse, lover or life partner.
As a cover for their relationship, they opened an Italian restaurant, called Pasta Gallery. As chef, Chowdhury believed that he could live with Argenti without raising any suspicions with friends or neighbours. Chowdhury found the site and Argenti purchased it with a mortgage he took out on his home.
However, Argenti shut down the restaurant a few years later, and tossed Chowdhury out of his home.
“[Argenti] obviously had no intention of ever allowing Chowdhury back,” Allan found. “While Chowdhury visited frequently (at Argenti’s convenience), he did not live [at Argenti’s home] after 1996. He lived in a series of small rooms or flats at Argenti’s insistence.”
Chowdhury continued to work and remain financially independent from Argenti, except for the partial rent payments that Argenti regularly paid for Chowdhury’s apartment.
The court heard that Argenti “made no reference to a present spouse, or to Chowdhury” in his will. Yet, he did call Chowdhury in 2003 after suffering a stroke.
Chowdhury hurried to the house, found him lying on the kitchen floor and called an ambulance. He then presented himself as Argenti’s partner at the hospital, and cleaned and cared for him for the duration of his stay. Argenti died two weeks later.
A month after Argenti’s death, Chowdhury told Xtra West that Argenti described him as his spouse to hospital staff before he died.
Chowdhury was excluded from all of his lover’s final preparations. He did not know where the body was taken. He had to search for the correct funeral home and when he arrived with flowers Argenti’s brother angrily asked him to leave.
Chowdhury was not permitted to sit with the family at the service, nor mentioned in the obituary. He was also not allowed to carry Argenti’s coffin, nor attend his cremation.
Vancouver lawyer barbara findlay understands the judge’s ruling.
“You can’t make a claim of being a partner unless you are the partner at the time that the testator died. They were not together so [the judge] didn’t have to think about whether this was a common-law relationship or not, because even if it had been, it was all over.”
Still, findlay wonders whether the existing definition of a common-law relationship, with its requisite cohabitation, adequately serves the many variations of today’s gay and lesbian couples.
“In our community it’s completely ordinary for people to carry on a relationship of duration and intimacy and continue to live in two separate places,” she points out.
“The cohabitation rule and the rule about holding yourself out as a couple in the community are designed to make it possible to distinguish between people who are dating and people who have a long-term relationship with each other, committed in some sense of the term,” she explains.
She is unsure whether the law needs to be changed to recognize queer relationships that do not conform to the legal definition of a traditional relationship. She thinks she may be able to argue within the current definitions that “indicators like cohabitation should not be required to demonstrate a relationship of commitment and permanence between two gay people.”
But, she adds, if a case comes up where she can’t convince a court to recognize an unconventional queer relationship, she may have to challenge the law itself.
Either way, findlay sees an easy way for gay and lesbian couples to protect themselves.
“Everyone is entitled under the law, whether you are married or common-law, to write your own rules,” she says. “Since the law gives us that freedom, don’t leave it to the law to work it out for you.
“You can agree with each other about what will happen if you break up, whether one person will or will not pay spousal maintenance to the other, whether the two of you will share in each other’s assets. You can agree about every single aspect of the relationship and how it may end. “Most people have no idea that that’s an option, and it’s certainly true that our community culture at the moment doesn’t have people doing it, but the fact that people don’t do it, doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do. People don’t write wills either.
“That’s particularly true in our communities because we have only recently come under the umbrella of family law. So it’s only recently that the law has started treating us as anything other than roommates in any circumstances,” she notes.
“What I say to people is the fact that you buy fire insurance doesn’t mean you’re planning to have a fire. It means that you are accepting the reality that the chances of the relationship lasting a long time are not greater than 50 percent. If you can’t talk about money and issues of this kind at this point, what do you think the chances are going to be later on if you decide to go your separate ways?
“Chances go down dramatically,” she states, “so it’s a good thing to talk about at the beginning of your relationship, precisely to see if you can.”
Chowdhury was unavailable for comment before press time.