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November 3, 2016

What Do You Mean We Aren't Married?

It sounds like a plot from a sitcom. A married couple discovers that, due to some technicality, they aren't legally married.

This really happened to a couple I know.

Jack and Jill had been married for several years and had a young son. One day Jill got a phone call from her ex-husband, Pierre. Pierre, who was not an American citizen, had been in the process of updating his paperwork to clarify his residency status when he discovered that his and Jill's final divorce papers had never been filed with the court.

This meant that, legally, Jack was not Jill's husband. Pierre was.

An undiscovered error of this kind has the potential for financial disaster. In a community property state like California, Pierre would be entitled to half of Jill's earnings and property. In this case, Pierre had no desire to cause trouble and would never have made such a claim. Even so, had Jack or Jill died, there could have been a lot of difficulty settling the estate. The surviving spouse, lacking legal status, might have been denied certain benefits. This actually happened to my grandmother, who was denied military benefits because she didn't have the paperwork to prove that her previous husband had died before she married my grandfather decades earlier.

Jack and Jill's son, Jack Junior, could also have been affected. When a married woman gives birth, the law assumes that her husband is the father. In theory, Pierre could have been considered responsible for child support, or Junior might have had difficulty inheriting from his father's estate, especially if there were any relatives who wanted to contest his claim. Of course, there are procedures that can be undergone to establish actual paternity; it just adds a layer of complexity to an already odd situation.

It is also possible Pierre could have faced immigration problems if there was a suspicion that something fishy was going on with his marriage - or non-marriage - to an American citizen.

Checking the paperwork is always a good idea. A few years ago, a couple in California learned that their 48-year marriage wasn't legal because the officiant had failed to file the license after the ceremony. They quickly put together a wedding party and made it legal.

In another case, a couple getting divorced after 36 years of marriage discovered they weren't legally married to begin with because the husband had never properly divorced his first wife. This case had financial complications and led to a lawsuit.

Fortunately, Jack, Jill, and Pierre were good-hearted people and all in agreement. The divorce was finalized as quickly as possible. Jack and Jill remarried quietly on the anniversary of their original wedding. Everybody did what was necessary to get all the finances and paperwork in proper order.

A short time later, in a conversation with Jack, I commented that it must have been quite annoying to have to go through all of that.

"Not really," he said. "It actually turned out to be wonderful, because it gave me the opportunity to marry Jill all over again."

Happy ending.
 

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