Thank You For Submiting Feedback!
A common-law marriage is formed when the parties’ contract to be married, either expressly or impliedly by circumstance. The key element in discerning whether parties are common-law married is mutual assent: each party must intend to be married to the other and understand the other's intent. Some factors to which courts have looked to discern the parties' intent include tax returns, documents filed under penalty of perjury, introductions in public, contracts, and checking accounts.
Respondent A. Stone III and petitioner Susan Thompson met in the early 1980's and began a romantic relationship shortly thereafter. The parties had two children and continued to live, raise their children, and manage rental properties together for approximately twenty years. Petitioner worked as a veterinarian and owned multiple practices, while respondent performed contracting work and collected rent from tenants. The parties ultimately ended their relationship after petitioner discovered that respondent was having an affair with a woman in Costa Rica. Respondent filed an amended complaint in family court seeking a declaratory judgment that the parties were common-law married, a divorce, and an equitable distribution of alleged marital property. Petitioner answered, asserting the parties were never common-law married and seeking dismissal. She also asked the court to bifurcate the issues to first determine if a common-law marriage existed if it would not dismiss the case. After a hearing, the family court denied petitioner’s motion to dismiss but granted her motion to bifurcate, ordering a trial on the sole issue of whether the parties were married at common law. At trial, respondent’s testimony focused on the parties' cohabitation for approximately twenty years, the fact that they raised their two children together during this time, and their partnership in acquiring, renovating, and renting multiple properties. He submitted evidence that the parties were jointly titled on some properties as well as that petitioner had listed herself as married to him on several documents. Conversely, petitioner testified that she never intended to marry respondent pointing out to numerous documents listing both of them as single during the relevant time period, including all of their tax returns, his documents related to a financial venture, and a 2008 agreement signed by both parties. The family court concluded the parties were common-law married beginning in 1989 when they began to live together full-time and petitioner introduced respondent as her husband during an art opening. The family court concluded that respondent presented sufficient evidence of the parties' apparently-matrimonial cohabitation to trigger a presumption of marriage that could only be refuted by strong, cogent evidence they never agreed to marry. The court found that petitioner failed to submit such evidence, as once she expressed the intention to be married in December 1989, no subsequent act could change it, as there is no common-law divorce. The family court awarded attorney's fees and costs to respondent. Petitioner appealed to the court of appeals, which determined the family court's order was not final and appealable because it did not end the case.
Did the family court err in finding that the parties were married by common law?
The court reversed the judgment and held that the family court erred in finding that the parties were married by common law and in awarding respondent the attorney's fees because, while it was clear the parties intended to be in a committed relationship and business partnership together, respondent did not demonstrate the mutual assent required to prove a common-law marriage where the evidence presented as to the factors considered in determining intent was decidedly mixed, where their conduct in living together, raising children, and running the business did not demonstrate they each intended to be married and knew the other intended the same.