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    The Lawletter Blog

    FAMILY LAW: Common-Law Marriage—Mistaken Belief in Validity of Marriage

    Posted by Gale Burns on Thu, Jan 3, 2013 @ 08:01 AM

    The Lawletter Vol 37 No 10

    Sandra Thomas, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

    Confirming the rule that Massachusetts does not recognize common-law marriage, the Appeals Court of Massachusetts, in Bedard v. Corliss, 973 N.E.2d 691, 693 (Mass. App. Ct. 2012), has refused to find a common-law marriage in a case in which the parties themselves believed they were married and had lived together for 21 years.

    In 1983, Ethan Corliss and Carol Bedard took part in a marriage ceremony in Tijuana, Mexico, that was conducted by a man holding himself out as an attorney.  His secretary acted as a witness.  Ethan and Carol signed papers that were written in Spanish, which they did not understand.  A few weeks later, a certificate of marriage written in English was mailed to them at their home in Massachusetts.   During the 21 years that followed, the parties filed joint tax returns, bought property as husband and wife, held themselves out as husband and wife, and listed each other as spouses on employment and other documents.

    Following Carol's death in 2004, Ethan was appointed as administrator of Carol's estate, listing himself as Carol's spouse.  Carol's three adult children from a prior marriage had each given signed assent to his appointment.

    One of the children subsequently changed her mind and challenged the validity of Ethan and Carol's marriage.  Following an investigation, the parties stipulated that the marriage had not been a valid marriage under the law of Mexico.  The marriage therefore could not be recognized by Massachusetts as a valid foreign marriage, and because Massachusetts does not recognize common-law marriage, the trial court concluded that there was no valid marriage.  The court entered judgment revoking the decree appointing Ethan as administrator.  Ethan appealed from this order.

    In the meantime, Ethan had voluntarily distributed to Carol's children $120,000 that had been in a joint account that had become Ethan's property on Carol's death.  Ethan had given the funds to Carol's children, although he was not legally obligated to do so, because it was his understanding that that was what Carol had wanted.

    Ethan subsequently filed a complaint in equity to recover those funds.  The trial court concluded that Ethan's gift had been based on the mistaken beliefs that Carol's children considered him to be Carol's husband and that they would follow through with their mother's wishes.  The court held that these mistakes resulted in unjust enrichment, and it ordered the children to return those funds to Ethan.  The children appealed from this order.

    The appellate court reversed the judgment removing Ethan as administrator.  Citing the decision in Poor v. Poor, 409 N.E.2d 758 (Mass. 1980), which held that an individual who has obtained the benefits of marriage is estopped from later denying that marriage, the court concluded that Carol would have been estopped from denying the existence of the marriage under the circumstances and, therefore, her children were estopped as well.  The court reasoned that the intestacy statute was designed in part to protect the spouse of a person who has not written a will and concluded that "[t]he statute thus provides the kind of benefit of marriage that Carol herself would have been estopped from attempting to deny to Ethan through a challenge to the validity of their marriage."  Bedard, 973 N.E.2d at 695.

    Regarding the equity case, in which Ethan sought recovery of the $120,000 distributed to the children, the appeals court sent the matter back to the trial court, noting that the judge in the lower court had "demonstrated commendable sensitivity to the equities of the issue" and would be able to take into account the extent to which Ethan might have been damaged by the children's sale of a lakeside cottage in Maine at which Carol and Ethan had spent their summers and in which Ethan believed he had a life estate.

    Topics: legal research, family law, Sandra Thomas, Massachusetts law, no common-law marriage, 21-year relationship, marriage in Mexico not recognized as valid, The Lawletter Vol 37 No 10

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