You’re Not Married Until The Paperwork Is Finished

When I first heard of this case, I thought it was an interesting but isolated case– the sort of thing that happens but is not common.  I may have been wrong.  In one of those serendipitous coincidences, I met a lady at a speaking engagement who told me about a situation involving several of her friends.  Several couples at a club that she belonged to had recently been “married” by a notary who also belonged to the club.  They had ceremonies, but failed to get licenses.  Apparently, the notary informed them that a license was not necessary.  WRONG!

Florida outlawed common law marriages in 1967. Since then no amount of playing house together can make you husband and wife in Florida, as discovered by Kimberly Hall and Roberto Maal.  Ms. Hall and Dr. Maal had the full ceremony, represented to the world that they were husband and wife, purchased a home as “husband and wife,” and even had two children.  However, one small detail was never attended to; i.e., they failed to obtain a marriage license, solemnize the marriage before an acceptable official, and return the license to the clerk of the court for recording.  The completed step one (i.e., they got a license), but failed to complete steps two and three.  See, Fla. Stat. sections 741.01 to 741.212 Years later when trouble arose, Ms. Hall was denied a “divorce” because she and Dr. Maal were never married.

A failure to obtain a license and be properly married can have serious consequences in a number of situations besides divorces.  In a divorce, it can cause a loss of rights to marital property and alimony.  Moreover, in an estate, it could cause a loss of rights to a life estate in a homestead, an elective share, and family allowance.  If there is no marriage, then there is no surviving spouse.  If  the purchasers of real property are not married, then they do not acquire the property as tenants-by-the-entireties and have no creditor protection and no survivor rights.  The forgotten marriage license is the opposite of the forgotten spouse problem.  Either one is serious though.

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Beware the Forgotten Spouse!

This post is based on a real case. It is an excellent example of how delay and a failure to plan can hurt you and your family.

Joe and Sally were an older couple and both had children from previous marriages. They married after knowing each other for about one year. Neither one of them was “wealthy” and they did not bother with a prenuptial agreement. In fact, Sally deeded two pieces of real property that she owned to herself and Joe creating tenancies-by-the-entireties in the properties. However, the marriage did not work out and after several years Joe returned to his home in Virginia.

Sally died fifteen years later still married to Joe. She never bothered to get a divorce or a post-nuptial agreement. Her will left everything she owned to her only son, Charlie. At the time of her death, she owned the two real pieces of property as tenancies-by- the-entireties with Joe and approximately $300,000.00 in CDs, checking accounts, and savings. All of the $300,000.00 was either payable on death to Charlie or in a joint account with him. The real properties were worth about $250,000.00. Sally and Charlie lived on one of the parcels of real property, which was Charlie’s only home. She hadn’t seen or spoken to Joe in fifteen years. They hadn’t even lived in the same state during those years. Upon hearing of Sally’s death, Joe (being no fool) immediately sought counsel and filed a claim for an elective share. He also laid claim to the two pieces of real property.

Under Florida law, Joe became the sole owner of the two pieces of real property when his “wife” died. Joe claimed an elective share in Sally’s estate. See, Fla. Stat. §732.201 et seq. Because of the elective share allowed the surviving spouse of a spouse who dies domiciled in Florida, Joe will also receive thirty percent of the funds from the CDs, checking accounts, and savings even though they were all co-owned with or payable on death to her son Charlie. In other words, Joe gets two valuable pieces of real estate worth $250,000.00 plus $90,000.00 in cash for a total of $340,000.00. Sally’s only son Charlie, the sole beneficiary of her will, receives $210,000.00 and loses his home. Somehow I don’t think that is what Sally intended to happen. I’m sure she intended for Charlie to continue living in their home and to receive all of her money, as her will provided.

The moral of this story is to not leave any loose ends. Sally could have avoided this problem by divorcing Joe when he moved to Virginia Sooner would have been better than later so as to assure a “short term marriage.” Alternatively, she and Joe could have had a prenuptial before they married or a post-nuptial agreement afterwards. Once they were married, the only way to avoid his claim to an elective share would be a trust unless he voluntarily waived his rights in writing, which is what a nuptial agreement helps with. She should never have gifted one-half of her real property to Joe. Once she did that, there was no way to undo it without Joe’s cooperation. In my experience, once such a gift is given, it is rarely, if ever, freely returned and always ends up costing the donor. For the sake of your loved one, don’t forget that long gone spouse!

Copyright Notice: All Rights Reserved Harry Thomas Hackney, P.A. 2008