Are You Sure You’re Married?
I remember an old episode of Gilligan’s Island — well, I guess they’re all old now — when the Howells discovered that they were not really married. Lovey threw a fit and wouldn’t let Thurston sleep in the same hut with her.
But, in a decision filed by the California Court of Appeal yesterday, it appears few spouses who purportedly were married, at least here in California, have much about which to worry. In a decision affirming the trial court based in San Luis Obispo County, the appeals court rule 3-0 that a couple who applied for a confidential marriage license and exchanged vows at a solemnization ceremony were legally married, even though, “[a]fter the ceremony, the officiant gave the signed license to the parties, who promised to file it with the county but never did so”.
This became a major problem four years later when the husband filed for divorce. The wife filed what is known as a “motion to quash”, claiming that the parties were not married. She had a point. Family Code section 423 requires the person solemnizing the marriage to return the marriage license to the county recorder within 10 days after the ceremony. But Family Code section 306 indicates “[n]oncompliance with this part by a nonparty to the marriage does not invalidate the marriage”.
It turns out that the husband, or so-called husband, was asked by the so-called wife not to file the license because she did not want to lose her Social Security benefits. On the other hand, the parties openly referred to each other as husband and wife, but they filed tax returns as “single” people. Even when they refinanced the husband’s home in 2013, the loan application stated that the parties were single. The parties also signed other paperwork indicating that they were single. In fact, the wife (alleged wife, so-called wife, whatever) testified at trial that getting a marriage license in the fist place was a “ruse: the parties only wanted to appease relatives who disapproved of unwedded cohabitation. The trial court discredited (her) testimony, nothing that the parties could have held a ceremony without a license, and her relatives would be none the wiser”.
In denying the motion to quash, the trial court found that the parties “consented to marriage by not calling off the ceremony before the exchange of vows. Though the parties agreed to retain the marriage license, the court deemed this ‘unconvincing’ evidence that consent was lacking. The court wrote that the wedding officiant failed to perform his duty to return the license, but this did not invalidate the marriage”
Part of the problem in this case is that although there are statutes in California defining marriage, they do not contemplate what happens if the wedded couple retains the signed license. But as the Court of Appeal noted, after the ceremony, “the officiant authenticated the marriage license; he was not told that the wedding was a ruse. At that point, the parties were married”, even though the officiant had a legal duty to return the license to the county. The fact that he did not do that did not invalidate the marriage. As the justices succinctly stated, “[o]nce the parties say “I do”, they cannot take the statement back.
The trial court ruling was made by the Hon. Patrick Perry, who has since retired. The Court of Appeal opinion was by Justice Steven Perren. Although the case was decided based on an appeal from San Luis Obispo County, the decision by the appellate panel is binding on all trial courts throughout California because the opinion was certified for publication.
The conclusion reached at both the trial and the appellate level in this case seems straightforward. But if there was any dispute about how the case would be resolved, the couple’s sneaky hehavior (e.g., filing incorrect tax returns or lying on a loan application) did not help the wife’s claim. In other words, judges rarely like to reward people for their wrongs, although sometimes the law requires that — but not here.
In any event, the validity of a marriage is usually taken for granted in most California divorce cases. Usually, it’s the other issues that can be contentious, i.e., custody, support, property. But you can’t have a divorce without a marriage. But if there is noncompliance with some regulation other than the one in play in this case, entitled Michael Chaney v. Leanne Netterstrom, the issue becomes one of whether the marriage is void or voidable. And sometimes there can be orders made even when the marriage is not valid. But that is a point of discussion for another blog.
As for the Howells, I forget from the plot why there was a belief that their marriage was not valid. I just remember that they heard something on the radio about it You know, that radio that the professor, who could do everything but get the castaways off the island, built.
And the rest are here on Gilligan’s Island!