Common-Law Marriage, Divorce and Probate, All In One Case

DECEMBER 19, 2016 VOLUME 23 NUMBER 47
Here’s a question we hear frequently: how long does a couple have to live together in order to be considered married? The answer in Arizona: until the wedding ceremony.

In other words, Arizona does not recognize “common-law” marriages. That strong, direct statement, however, masks a more complicated answer. Arizona, like every other state, will recognize a marriage that was validly established in another state — so if a couple living in, say, Oklahoma (which does recognize common-law marriages) meets that state’s requirement to be treated as validly married, and they then move to Arizona, they will be married under Arizona law, as well.

No state, however, has a concept of concept of common-law divorce. That is, a divorce must be granted by a court, and can not be established by the couple simply acting as if they were divorced. And no state recognizes bigamous marriages — so if a couple is already married (by common-law or by a formal state-recognized marriage), neither spouse can enter into another marriage, whether by common-law or regular ceremony.

Try telling all that to Rhonda Brown, an Oklahoma woman who seems to have a fairly fluid concept of marriage. She and Bobby Joe Brown were married in 1995, and they had three children together. After a few years of marriage, though, she told her husband that she could not continue to live with him if he did not stop sleeping with other women, and when he did not change, she moved out on her own.

Rhonda moved around Oklahoma and Kansas for several years. She had children by another man (they were removed from her care by the Kansas authorities). According to her testimony, she and Bobby Joe still saw one another occasionally.

At one point Rhonda even “married” another man — though she said she always thought of the second marriage as a “sham.” How did that happen? According to her, she and Jimmy had been long-time friends and had always agreed they would marry one another if it was necessary for one to help the other out. After Jimmy’s release from prison, his grandparents let him live with them and supported him, but told him he needed to get married. When Rhonda agreed to visit his grandparents and tell them that she and Jimmy were going to get married, his grandparents immediately called a minister and had the ceremony that same day. She never saw Jimmy again, she said.

Meanwhile, Bobby Joe had moved in with another woman, Ami. Although they never had a marriage ceremony, Ami said that they always acted as if they were married, and held themselves out as husband and wife. That’s the very definition of common-law marriage in most states where it is permitted — including Oklahoma. They even had two children together and, according to Ami, they were a married couple in almost every respect. One problem: Bobby Joe was still married to Rhonda.

Then, in 2013, Bobby Joe died in a motorcycle accident. Ami filed a petition with the local probate court, alleging that she was the surviving spouse and asking for appointment as personal representative of his estate. The probate judge approved her appointment as personal representative; Ami did not mention Rhonda or give her notice of the proceedings.

Rhonda ultimately learned about the probate of Bobby Joe’s estate, and sought to remove Ami as personal representative. She pointed out that she had priority for appointment as Bobby Joe’s legal spouse, and that she was one of the heirs of his estate. The probate court heard testimony about the complicated relationship — and then denied Rhonda’s claim to priority for appointment.

The Oklahoma Court of Appeals affirmed the probate court decision, and Rhonda asked the state Supreme Court to review the ruling. The Oklahoma Supreme Court also agreed that Rhonda should not be appointed to administer her husband’s estate.

It is important to note that the state courts did not find that Rhonda and Bobby Joe were divorced, or that Bobby Joe and Ami were validly married. The ruling was ultimately based on concepts of “estoppel” — Rhonda could not make the legal argument that she was married to Bobby Joe because she had participated in another marriage, even though she claimed that her second marriage was a sham. To be more precise, the ban against her asserting her status as surviving spouse might be said to be partly because she admitted to a sham marriage — the courts decided that she should not be permitted to argue two inconsistent things in two different state proceedings. Estate of Brown, November 1, 2016.

The decision in Bobby Joe’s probate appeal was not unanimous, by the way. Six of the nine Justices of the Oklahoma Supreme Court agreed that Rhonda should not be allowed to seek appointment as personal representative, while three argued that there had been no divorce and Rhonda was still entitled to handle Bobby Joe’s estate.

It is also worth noting that the Oklahoma courts did not decide that Rhonda was not Bobby Joe’s surviving spouse. Though she could not insist on her priority for appointment as personal representative, the state Supreme Court decision does not say that she is not entitled to a share of Bobby Joe’s estate. That argument might be made later, back in probate court. We’ll let you know if we hear about it.

Why do we care about common-law (and other fluid concepts of) marriage in Arizona, where only properly recorded marriages are valid? For two reasons: (1) people who move to Arizona from Oklahoma, Kansas, Montana — or one of the handful of other states which recognize common-law marriages — might bring their confused marital statuses with them, and (2) we are constantly both surprised and intrigued by the complicated ways people live their lives.

It has been more than a decade since we last reported on common-law marriages, incidentally. In our 2013 newsletter article on the subject, we reported that fifteen states then recognized some form of common-law marriage. Today that number is down to eleven, with some dispute as to the status in one or two of those.

©2017 Fleming & Curti, PLC