The Lawletter Vol 40 No 3
In the first decision in the nation to address the issue, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals has held that an Alabama trial court was under no obligation to enforce the covenant-marriage contract entered into between the parties at the time of their marriage in Louisiana where the parties subsequently moved to Alabama and sought a divorce in the Alabama court. Blackburn v. Blackburn, No. 2131043, 2015 WL 1608431 (Ala. Civ. App. Apr. 10, 2015) (not yet released for publication).
In January 2013, Mr. Blackburn filed a complaint for divorce in an Alabama trial court, alleging as grounds incompatibility of temperament and an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage. Several days later, Mrs. Blackburn filed an answer and counterclaim also seeking a divorce and also alleging incompatibility of temperament, and further alleging that the husband had committed acts of domestic violence.
The case progressed until July 2013, when the wife filed a "motion to enforce the covenant marriage contract," asserting that the parties had been married subject to the Louisiana Covenant Marriage Act ("Act"), codified at Louisiana Revised Statutes ("La. R.S.") sections 9:272–:284, and that the provisions of that Act governed the Alabama divorce action between the parties.
Although a covenant marriage can be terminated by divorce under Louisiana law, one of the provisions of the Act states that "[a] covenant marriage may be terminated by divorce only upon one of the exclusive grounds enumerated in [La.] R.S. 9:307. A covenant marriage agreement may not be dissolved, rescinded, or otherwise terminated by the mutual consent of the spouses." La. R.S. § 9:272(C). As stated by the court in Blackburn, section 9:307(A) of the Louisiana Revised Statutes "provides the fault-based grounds for which a spouse to a covenant marriage may seek a divorce 'subsequent to the parties['] obtaining counseling.' It is undisputed that the parties in the present case entered into a covenant marriage when they married in Louisiana." 2015 WL 1608431, at *2.
Following a hearing, the Alabama trial court denied the wife's motion to enforce the parties' Louisiana covenant-marriage contract. The divorce proceeded to judgment, and the wife appealed. The Alabama appellate court issued a thoughtful opinion in which it noted that the issue had not been previously considered and that the court would therefore address "the feasible options for its resolution." Id. It rejected the option of holding that the Alabama court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to grant a divorce, as had been done in Rosengarten v. Downes, 802 A.2d 170 (Conn. App. Ct. 2002), where the court had concluded that because Connecticut did not recognize same-sex civil unions, the Connecticut court did not have jurisdiction pursuant to Connecticut divorce law to dissolve a civil union performed in another state. 2015 WL 1608431, at *2.
The court then considered whether a court in Alabama was required to apply the Act to parties who participated in a covenant marriage in Louisiana and subsequently moved to Alabama. Quoting the language of the U.S. Supreme Court in Williams v. North Carolina, 325 U.S. 226 (1945), where the Court had stated that "[t]he domicil of one spouse within a State gives power to that State, we have held, to dissolve a marriage wheresover contracted," id. at 230, the Blackburn court concluded that it had jurisdiction to act. The appellate court rejected as not applicable the case law cited by the wife holding that parties may agree that the laws of a state other than Alabama are to govern their prenuptial agreement in an Alabama divorce, noting that the authority of a court to grant a divorce is purely statutory.
The court ultimately concluded: "We find no basis, statutory or otherwise, for a court of this state to grant a divorce based upon the laws of a state other than Alabama." 2015 WL 1608431, at *5. The court noted that Alabama law "empowers the circuit courts of this state to divorce married persons for 'a complete incompatibility of temperament' or 'an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage,'" and found no error by the trial court in refusing to enforce the parties' covenant-marriage contract. Id.