Minnesota Court Awards Guardianship to Lesbian Partner Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Karen Thompson, the lesbian partner of Sharon Kowalski, a disabled woman unable to care for herself after she had been paralyzed in a vehicle accident, was named Kowalski’s guardian by the Minnesota Court of Appeals. The decision ended an eight-year legal struggle for guardianship between Thompson and Kowalski’s parents.

Summary of Event

On November 13, 1983, Sharon Kowalski, then twenty-seven years old, was driving her niece and nephew home when the car they were in was struck head-on by a car driven by a man who was drunk. Sharon’s four-year-old niece was killed in the collision, and Sharon arrived at the hospital in St. Cloud, Minnesota, with a severe head injury and in a coma. Karen Thompson, Sharon’s lesbian partner of nearly four years at the time, arrived at the hospital after receiving a call from Donald Kowalski, Sharon’s father, who notified her of the accident. Karen saw a sign in the intensive care unit that stated that “family members” were the only ones who could visit a patient within the unit. [kw]Minnesota Court Awards Guardianship to Lesbian Partner (Dec. 17, 1991) [kw]Court Awards Guardianship to Lesbian Partner, Minnesota (Dec. 17, 1991) [kw]Guardianship to Lesbian Partner, Minnesota Court Awards (Dec. 17, 1991) [kw]Lesbian Partner, Minnesota Court Awards Guardianship to (Dec. 17, 1991) Guardianship Disability rights, and guardianship Legal reform;guardianships [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Dec. 17, 1991: Minnesota Court Awards Guardianship to Lesbian Partner[2120] [c]Civil rights;Dec. 17, 1991: Minnesota Court Awards Guardianship to Lesbian Partner[2120] Kowalski, Sharon Thompson, Karen Kowalski, Donald and Della Tomberlin, Karen

From all appearances, this innocuous sign at the door to the intensive care unit would not predict what would follow. Four years earlier, on December 17, 1979, Sharon and Karen exchanged rings and committed themselves to each other; few knew of their relationship. They bought a house together, and each had a life-insurance policy naming the other as beneficiary. However, because Karen was not legally “family,” hospital regulations prevented her from seeing her seriously injured partner. Hours passed, until a priest said he would check on Sharon’s status. A doctor emerged and informed Karen that Sharon had devastating injuries, including a severe injury to her head and multiple orthopedic injuries; her recovery, if she survived, would be long term. Karen was allowed to visit her partner for five minutes.

Later that night, Sharon’s parents, Donald and Della Kowalski, arrived from northern Minnesota, having learned earlier that evening that their granddaughter (Sharon’s niece) had died in the accident. During the next month, Sharon’s parents and Karen spent as much time as they could at the hospital, with Sharon’s parents occasionally staying with Karen at her and Sharon’s home. The Kowalskis did not know that their daughter and Karen were partners.

Eventually, the Kowalskis began to question the amount of time Karen was spending with their daughter, who remained in a coma. They told Karen they were planning to move Sharon closer to them and that they could best care for their daughter. Karen struggled with what to do and then decided, with the support of a counselor at the hospital, to write Sharon’s parents and explain their lesbian relationship.

Karen’s expression of love and hope for Sharon quickly turned into a legal and emotional nightmare as the Kowalskis reacted angrily to her letter. On March 2, 1984, Karen petitioned for appointment as Sharon’s guardian, essentially revealing publicly for the first time that she and Sharon were partners; Donald Kowalski immediately cross-petitioned for appointment. A probate court concluded that Sharon was incapacitated and, on April 25, 1984, appointed her father her guardian, but on the condition that Karen would retain visitation rights and have access to Sharon’s medical records.

In 1984, Sharon was moved three times, eventually residing in a nursing home in Hibbing, Minnesota, hundreds of miles from her home outside St. Cloud. Despite the travel and relocations, Sharon began to show signs of improvement, while Karen’s effort to communicate with the Kowalskis continued to deteriorate. On November 1, 1984, a temporary restraining order was issued against Karen, with motions of guardianship heard in May of 1985. On July 23, 1985, a district court judge ordered Donald Kowalski sole guardian, and within twenty-four hours he terminated visitation rights for Karen; her visit with Sharon in August of 1985 would be her last for three and one-half years.

Legal proceedings over guardianship and whether Sharon was receiving proper therapy continued in local, state, and federal courts, as Karen, a very private person, began to speak out with support from women’s, lesbian, and disability rights groups. Karen’s lawyer petitioned the court in September of 1987 for a medical evaluation of Sharon. In May of 1988, the district court judge ordered a medical evaluation to take place in Duluth, Minnesota, and doctors determined that Sharon wanted to see Karen. On February 4, 1989, the two women reunited for the first time since 1985.

Donald Kowalski, citing a heart condition and deteriorating health, resigned as his daughter’s guardian in May of 1990. On April 23, 1991, denying Karen’s petition for guardianship, the court named Karen Tomberlin, a family friend, as Sharon’s guardian. Then, on December 17, 1991, twelve years to the day after Sharon and Karen exchanged rings, the Minnesota Court of Appeals granted Karen Thompson guardianship of Sharon Kowalski. The appeals court ruled that Sharon “has the capacity reliably to express a preference in this case, and she has clearly chosen to return home with Thompson,” and the court also recognized their lesbian relationship, stating, “This choice is further supported by the fact that Thompson and Sharon are a family of affinity, which ought to be accorded respect.” Sharon’s homecoming took place on April, 1993, after the Minnesota Supreme Court refused to hear Tomberlin’s appeal.


From the moment Karen Thompson arrived at the hospital to see her partner Sharon, she had no legal rights. This happened, all too often, during the HIV-AIDS crisis (and still happens today) when longtime companions, there to provide comfort and help make decisions about care, were denied access. Karen’s gaining guardianship was hailed as a victory for lesbian and gay rights, but Karen, who was quoted after the decision in the Los Angeles Times, said, “today’s decision is not a victory. It is a right decision, a just decision that should have been made eight years ago.”

Karen’s eight-year legal struggle highlighted the need for same-gender couples to seek legal recognition of their domestic partnership, including receiving “spousal” benefits from the employers of their partners, for ending discrimination in the workplace, for the legal right to marry or to form a civil union, and for domestic partnership laws in general, including rights of visitation, guardianship, and custody. Guardianship Disability rights, and guardianship Legal reform;guardianships

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Charles, Casey. The Sharon Kowalski Case: Lesbian and Gay Rights on Trial. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hansen, Mark. “Gay-Rights Victory.” ABA Journal 78 (March, 1992): 22.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hayden, Curry, Denis Clifford, and Frederick Hertz. A Legal Guide for Lesbian and Gay Couples. Berkeley, Calif.: Nolo Press, 2004.
  • citation-type="booksimple"


    In re Guardianship of Sharon Kowalski, Ward. Court of Appeals of Minnesota. 478 N.M. 2d 790; 1991. http://www.danpinello.com/Kowalski2 .htm.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewin, Tamar. “Disabled Woman’s Care Given to Lesbian Partner.” The New York Times, December 18, 1991, p. A26.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thompson, Karen, and Julie Andrzejewski. Why Can’t Sharon Kowalski Come Home? San Francisco, Calif.: Spinsters Ink/Aunt Lute, 1988.

1981: Gay and Lesbian Palimony Suits Emerge

July 26, 1990: Americans with Disabilities Act Becomes Law

September 21, 1993-April 21, 1995: Lesbian Mother Loses Custody of Her Child

December 20, 1999: Baker v. Vermont Leads to Recognition of Same-Gender Civil Unions

Categories: History