Firefighter's widow defends her marriage in court

HOUSTON Wharton volunteer firefighter Thomas Araguz III was killed earlier this month while fighting a fire. Because he died on the job, he is entitled to a lot of money in death benefits, as much as $600,000. And since there is so much money on the table, it's only intensifying an already bitter fight.

The hearing took about two hours Friday. On the stand, the mother of the late Thomas Araguz said she wanted his widow cut out of the death benefit proceeds so that all monies go to his two children from a former marriage.

Araguz's widow, Nikki Araguz, broke down on the stand. But she also conceded that Thursday she received a $60,000 benefit check and had already spent $1,200 of it.

The judge on Friday ordered all monies to be turned over to a trust fund and reported to the court. Still to be decided is whether the union between Thomas and Nikki Araguz is recognized under Texas law.

She was born a male and underwent gender modification surgery, she says, after the marriage. That remains a bitter point of debate between the family who says Thomas Araguz was unaware his wife was transgender until recently.

"Two months ago, when he and his ex-wife went to a court case for the children, that's when he found out and we all found out," said family member Raquel Araguz. "He was embarrassed, he was ashamed that he brought this person into our family."

After the hearing, Nikki Araguz turned from tearful to defiant.

"I have been completely honest with him about my entire history - legally, financially, physically, mentally, medically - in every way; 100 percent honest. And I have evidence to prove such facts," Nikki Araguz said.

The judge ruled that the current freeze on the assets will stand and any proceeds from any benefits have to go into a trust fund. The minor children have to be considered in this, he said.

There is no hearing date as to whether the marriage is valid under Texas law.

Earlier Friday

Instead of grieving for her husband, the widow of a fallen Wharton firefighter is defending her marriage in court.

The mother and ex-wife of Thomas Araguz filed a lawsuit, claiming Nikki Araguz shouldn't receive any benefits, because she was born a man and that her marriage was a fraud.

The court is hearing from Nikki Araguz, the widow of Thomas Araguz who was killed in the line of duty fighting a fire at an egg farm earlier this month.

Today's fight is over a $600,000 estate, plus additional benefits left in Thomas' name. His widow says that money belongs to her, as his spouse. But Thomas' mother Simona Longoria and his ex-wife Heather Delgato filed a lawsuit that would in effect freeze Nikki out of that money. They say because Nikki was born a man and same-sex marriage isn't recognized in the state of Texas, the marriage between Nikki and Thomas should be voided, and all of that money turned over to Thomas' two sons.

Wharton County Judge Randy Clapp had issued a temporary restraining order freezing the couple's assets that prohibited Nikki from removing anything in or from the couple's home. Judge Clapp then ordered all death benefit proceeds to be put into trust accounts by attorneys for all parties.

Thomas' mother says 100 percent of the estate belongs to her two grandsons, ages six and nine. She says the boys will "never see any of that money if Nikki gets it."

Longoria went on to say, "We had to do this so Nikki wouldn't get what isn't hers."

Perhaps the biggest surprise that caused quite a stir inside the courtroom was the fact that Nikki told the court that she just received $60,000 yesterday from a national firefighter's fund. Thomas' family appeared quite shocked by that information and said they had no idea she had received any money.

During a court break, Nikki was very emotional and told Eyewitness News, "I miss my husband. I just miss him, that's all."

No probate hearings or annullment petitions have been scheduled at this time.

Stay with ABC13 Eyewitness News for updates on this developing story.

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