The wedding vow “for better or worse” has been taken by millions of brides and bridegrooms throughout history. Its origins can be traced back to Medieval England, if not farther. The phrase is defined in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as meaning: “whether good or bad things happen.”
But what, if any, are the vows in a common law marriage?
Rhode Island is one of the few states that still recognizes common law marriage. However, a recent ruling by the Rhode Island Supreme Court suggests that the Court is less than sanguine in its support for common law marriage. In a recent decision, the R.I. Supreme Court held that a common law marriage did not exist between a man and a woman who had been in a 23-year relationship.
The case is: Angela Luis v. Kevin Gaugler, No. 2016-334-Appeal (June 11, 2018).
In reaching its decision, the Court reviewed the trial court justice’s findings of fact regarding the conduct of the parties throughout their relationship. Facts that were specifically referenced include but are not limited to:
- The parties filed individual tax returns
- Ms. Luis labeled herself as “single” and “head of household” on her individual tax returns
- Mr. Gaugler referred to Ms. Luis as his “fiancé” on his 401(k) beneficiary designation form
- Ms. Luis labeled herself as “single” on her son’s FAFSA application
- Parties held real estate as tenants in common rather than tenants in the entirety
- Parties had not had any joint bank accounts since the 1990s
However, the record also reflected the following facts:
- Mr. Gaugler labeled Ms. Luis as his “wife” on his life insurance policy beneficiary designation form
- Mr. Gaugler labeled Ms. Luis as his “spouse” on his employer-provided health insurance
- Ms. Luis referred to Mr. Gaugler as her husband in September 1995 at her son’s school
- Mr. Gaugler’s family members referred to Ms. Luis as an “in-law”
As may be gleaned from the facts, the parties’ testimony and the evidence presented at trial was conflicting. It became clear to the trial justice, and subsequently to the Supreme Court, that the parties “cherry picked” when they would represent themselves as husband and wife depending on whether it would benefit them. For example, the parties labeled each other as husband and wife on Mr. Gaugler’s health insurance so that he was able to provide insurance for Ms. Luis, but refrained from labeling their relationship as a marriage on Ms. Luis’ FAFSA application (submitted on behalf of her son) in an effort to maximize the amount of the loan.
In other words, the parties only represented themselves as married when it suited them or when they would benefit. They apparently chose to “cherry pick” only the “for better” part of the marriage vow.
A common law marriage must be found based on clear and convincing evidence. Based on the trial justice’s findings of facts, the Court held that “[t]he evidence of a common-law marriage can only be described as inconsistent in this case, and thus is insufficient to meet the heightened standard of proof” (i.e., clear and convincing evidence). Thus, the Court held that the parties did not seriously intend to be husband and wife.
Justice Indeglia, writing on behalf of the Court, called upon the General Assembly to “revisit and reevaluate this arguably outmoded doctrine” and to take into consideration “the modern fluidity of family units.” The Luis case is not the first case in which the Court has called upon the Rhode Island Legislature to eliminate common law marriage. Notwithstanding, it remains.
Justice Robinson, in an unsparingly critical dissent, opined that the majority had placed themselves in the seat of the trial justice in holding that the evidence did not meet the clear and convincing standard. Although he repeatedly noted his genuine respect for his colleagues, Justice Robinson reasoned that the majority had “engaged in its own differential weighing of the evidence as though it were acting as a nisi prius court.” He noted that “there is nothing new about there being inconsistences in witness testimony” and that the trial justice’s 142 findings of fact “clearly reflect her awareness” that there were inconsistences. Ultimately, it is Justice Robinson’s “unblinking opinion” that “there very definitely was clear and convincing evidence of the existence of a common law marriage” between the parties.
In Rhode Island, for a common law marriage to exist, the parties’ representations as being husband and wife must be consistent: for better or worse.