Hall v. Maal, — So.3d —-, 2010 WL 1212794 (Fla. 1st DCA March 30, 2010)

Just because someone says they were married to the decedent, doesn’t make it so. In contested probate proceedings you simply can’t take this fact for granted; the economic implications are too big. A surviving spouse has [1] the right to homestead property (at least a life estate in the decedent’s homestead residence), [2] a right to an elective share (30% of the decedent’s augmented elective estate), [3] a right to take as a pretermitted spouse (up to 100% of the estate under Florida’s laws of intestacy), [4] a right to a family allowance, [5] a right to exempt property, and [6] priority in preference in selecting a personal representative. In addition, as I recently wrote here, Florida courts have long held that a presumption of undue influence in a will contest "cannot arise in the case of a husband and wife" because the requirement of active procurement would almost always be present.

So how do you "test" the validity of a marriage?

The 1st DCA made clear in the linked-to case above that determining if a couple "acted" married is NOT the way to test a marriage’s legal validity. In this case the couple had a formal wedding ceremony, lived together, had children together, walked around telling anyone who would listen they were man and wife, executed a mortgage as husband and wife, and in all other respects "acted married," but they never got around to getting a marriage license. So were they "legally" married? NO says the 1st DCA. Why? Because 741.211, Florida Statutes (2002) says common-law marriages aren’t valid in Florida. So if you don’t have a marriage license, you’re not married.

Acting Married

If there were ever two people who acted married, it was the couple in this case:

Ms. Hall and Dr. Maal were engaged to be married on March 2, 2002, at Old Christ Church in Pensacola. Leading up to their wedding date, they went through many of the familiar activities of those who intend to marry. They arranged for the church, engaged a minister, sent out invitations, arranged for flowers and a photographer, and attended pre-marital counseling. They attended at least two wedding showers. And, as some couples do, they started to work out a pre-nuptial agreement.

The week before the wedding, the couple was scheduled to go to the office of the county court clerk to get a marriage license. However, on that day, Dr. Maal called Ms. Hall at work and told her that they were not going to be able to get a marriage license because they had not agreed on the pre-nuptial agreement. Ms. Hall was understandably upset by this-all of the arrangements had been made and many of the guests were already in Pensacola for the ceremony. Dr. Maal persuaded her to go ahead with the ceremony, reassuring her that “everything will be alright.” On March 2, 2002, Dr. Maal and Ms. Hall participated in a full wedding ceremony performed by a minister at the church with numerous family members and friends present, complete with attendants, music, and flowers, and followed by a very nice reception. They did this knowing that they had not ever applied for nor received a marriage license.

In the years following the 2002 ceremony, two children were born of the relationship, Dr. Maal referred to Ms. Hall as his “wife,” and she referred to him as her “husband.” The mortgage on the parties’ home referred to them as “husband and wife.” Ms. Hall was referred to as “Mrs. Maal” in her workplace, although she had not legally changed her name. The parties continued to file separate tax returns.

A year after the “marriage” ceremony, the parties appeared before the clerk of the court and applied for and received a marriage license. However, the license was neither solemnized nor returned to the clerk of the court to be made part of the official records of the county.

No Marriage License = You’re NOT Married

These two may have walked, talked and looked married . . . but they weren’t. As explained by the 1st DCA, in the absence of a marriage license validly "solemnized" in accordance with Florida law: you’re NOT legally married.

Since 1967, when the Florida legislature abolished common law marriage, there has been only one method of producing a legally cognizable marriage in Florida. See generally §§ 741.01-.212, Fla. Stat. (2002). Persons desiring to be married are required to apply for a marriage license which can be issued by a county court judge or the clerk of the circuit court. See § 741.01, Fla. Stat. (2002). After issuance, a license is valid for 60 days within which time the marriage must be solemnized. See § 741.041, Fla. Stat. (2002). Marriage may be solemnized by ordained clergy, judges, clerks of court, or notaries public. See § 741.07, Fla. Stat. (2002). After solemnization, the officiant shall certify on the license that the marriage has been performed and deliver it, within 10 days, to the clerk or judge that issued it. See § 741.08, Fla. Stat. (2002). The county court judge and the clerk of the circuit court are required to keep a correct record of all licenses issued and of the licenses returned as certified by the officiant. See § 741.09, Fla. Stat. (2002). There are also provisions for proving up a marriage when the certificate is not completed on the marriage license, when the certified license is lost or when death or other cause prevents a certificate from being made. See § 741.10, Fla. Stat. (2002).

*     *     *     *     *

The parties were not in substantial compliance with Chapter 741. Whether substantial compliance exists is a fact-based inquiry. However, in order for there to be substantial compliance, there has to be some compliance. Some compliance would, at a minimum, entail the parties applying for and receiving a license.

*     *     *     *     *

To the extent that the dissent would hold that a marriage ceremony without a license, coupled with living together and “acting married,” results in a valid marriage, it would recreate a species of common-law marriage in violation of section 741.211, Florida Statutes (2002).

Hat tip to Eric Virgil

Coral Gables probate litigator extraordinaire Eric Virgil recently posted a summary of this case on the list service for the RPPTL section of the Dade County Bar Association. That’s how I became aware of it. Thanks Eric.

  • Tom Ellwanger

    The same issue arises in tort lawsuits where a true spouse may have a consortium claim or otherwise be entitled to elements of damages.

    Should estate planners seek confirmation of married status? Could there be liability for overlooking signs that “married” clients are not legally married?