What happens when a man and woman live together as if husband and wife, perhaps even believing in good faith that they are husband and wife, but in reality they are not legally married? When the relationship ends, does divorce law apply to them just the same?
The Minnesota Court of Appeals was recently confronted with this scenario. Husband and Wife got married. However, at the time of the purported marriage, the husband was still married to someone else. By law, then, his second “marriage” was void, because the law provides that you cannot legally marry someone before your first marriage is dissolved. Simple enough.
But what if his new wife did not know that he was still married to someone else? Does she have any rights under the law?
It depends on whether she is a “putative spouse” under the law. The putative spouse statute provides that:
“Any person who has cohabited with another to whom the person is not legally married in the good faith belief that the person was married to the other is a putative spouse until knowledge of the fact that the person is not legally married terminates the status and prevents acquisition of further rights. A putative spouse acquires the rights conferred upon a legal spouse…”
So, it all comes down to whether the Wife had a good faith belief that she was married, and if and when she ever learned that she was not legally married. In this case, two years into the marriage the first wife contacted new Wife and informed her that Husband’s marriage was never dissolved and they remained married. Thus, his second marriage was invalid.
The Judges on the Court of Appeals panel disagreed as to whether Wife had a good faith belief that she was still married. The majority ruled that the Wife had a good faith belief that she was still married, and she was therefore entitled to the same rights as if she were legally married the entire time. It was largely a credibility determination. The dissenting Judge believed that Wife knew she was marrying an already married man, and certainly knew that he was already married two years into the marriage when the original wife told her that her husband was not yet divorced. According to the dissenting Judge, the Wife was not entitled to application of marital dissolution laws (and could not receive spousal maintenance, for example) because she could not have had a good faith belief that she was ever married.
Whether or not someone is a putative spouse is decided on a case-by-case basis. It all hinges on how reasonable it is for the putative spouse to believe that they are legally married when they really are not. The take-home point is that even though you may not be legally married, you may still be entitled to the benefit of marital dissolution law.
The case is Fonoti v. Fonoti, A17-0091 (unpublished).
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