Articles Posted in Marital Rights

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Utah’s anti-polygamy law was ruled unconstitutional this month when a federal district court judge in Utah struck down the state’s prohibition of “cohabitation,” perhaps opening the door for the eventual legalization of polygamous marriage. The case continues the recent trend, in courts and in the nation as a whole, toward changing the way we think about marriage and the regulation of personal relationships by the government.

Polygamy Hands

The challenge to the Utah statute was brought by a Utah man (and reality television star) who lives with his four wives and 17 children. The court found that, under the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion, the statute’s language banning “cohabitation” is unconstitutional. The state can still prohibit actual polygamy by not allowing anyone to have more than one valid marriage license. However, the decision may pave the way for the legalization of polygamy sooner rather than later.

Another Significant Change to Domestic Relations Law 

The decision is the latest in a line of cases, from Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 through US v. Windsor earlier this year, in which the federal courts have expanded the right to privacy and limited the government’s ability to regulate private sexual behavior. The Utah court specifically cited Lawrence, which struck down anti-sodomy laws in Texas. In that case, the majority opinion stated that the Constitution protects people from “unwarranted government intrusions into a dwelling or other private places” and “an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression and certain intimate conduct.”

The dissent in Lawrence famously argued that the decision would inevitably lead to the legalization of same-sex marriage, polygamy, and other non-traditional familial arrangements and sexual practices. If marriage is nothing more than a matter of choice by consenting parties, reasoned the dissent, then there is no basis for limiting it to opposite-sex couples or to just two people.

In Windsor, the Supreme Court found the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, essentially requiring the federal government and state governments to recognize same-sex marriages from other states. Once again, critics predicted a “slippery slope” in which anti-polygamy laws would no longer stand up to constitutional scrutiny. If decisions about who can get married belong exclusively to the individuals involved, rather than to the community or government, then any regulation of those consensual decisions becomes intrusive.

The plaintiffs’ attorney in the Utah case, however, disagreed with the dissenting opinions in Lawrence and Windsor. He argued that those cases and the Utah decision ultimately come down to privacy, and to each person’s “right to be left alone as consenting adults.” People should be able to do whatever they want in their own homes, as long as they do not harm others. The government, the attorney argued, should not interfere with what its citizens do behind closed doors.

What to Do if You Want to Enter into a Non-traditional Marriage

Since the Utah decision relied on federal law, it would be equally applicable in California and other states. Continue reading →

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On May 8, the California Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that will determine whether an individual possesses marital rights, including the right to sue for the wrongful death of a spouse, when they are believe that their marriage is legally sound, but have not taken all the technical steps to ensure that their marriage is recognized under state law.
The couple was not legally married because husband’s divorce was finalized months after their ceremony, but held themselves out as a married couple.
The case involves a Silicon Valley couple who where married in the fall of 2003, before their family and friends in a large church wedding. Prior to the ceremony, the couple secured a marriage license from the state of California. During the course of their marriage, the couple held themselves out as husband and wife. Thumbnail image for Divorce, Annulment or Legal Separation
Four years into the marriage, the husband was killed in a tragic accident while working for a local constriction company. His wife initiated a wrongful death action against her husband’s employer. The employer argued that she did not have the right to sue because the couple was not legally married. This argument was based on the fact that the husband’s divorce from his first wife was not finalized until several months after the couple had tied the knot.
The wife maintains that she believed the marriage to be valid. She cites the couples large wedding, the fact that she took her husband’s last name, and that she helped take care of his two children from the previous marriage. In court documents, she explained that if the couple had known that their marriage was invalid, they would have taken the steps to become legally recognized as a married couple.
An appellate court found that a spouse possesses the legal right to file for wrongful death of their husband, so long as they genuinely believed the marriage was valid; Supreme Court seems likely to agree.
The trial court handling the wrongful death action agreed with the employer and barred the wife from pursuing the wrongful death action. But, the ruling was reversed on appeal. According to the appellate court, the wife was entitled to file the wrongful death action so long as she “honestly and genuinely” believed the marriage was valid. The employer sought a ruling from the State’s Supreme Court. The argue that that appellate court’s reasoning would lead to poor public policy because wouldn’t trouble themselves with ensuring that they have taken all the appropriate steps to become legally married.
During arguments in the case, the Justices seemed reluctant to strip the wife of her legal rights as a married woman. They expressed that taking such a position would punish individuals who acted under “honest and sincere” belief that they were married. In addition, they stated that such a ruling would contradict the putative spouse doctrine, which protects the financial and property interests of an individual who enters a marriage believing it to be valid. According to one justice, the purpose of such a doctrine is to protect the expectations of innocent parties.
The California Supreme Court has 90 days to issue a ruling in this case.

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