Tuesday, November 08, 2011

In Re Marriage of Seaton (Cal. Ct. App. - Nov. 8, 2011)

There's a quote-worthy line in Fletch (one amongst many) in which Chevy Chase tells Alan's wife, Gail:  "Sally Ann and Alan were married eight years ago.  Never divorced.  Making Alan a bigamist.  Even in Utah."

If only real cases were that simple.  What about in Nevada?

You'd think the case would be easy, right?  Bigamous marriages are void.  No good.  Don't exist.

But how would you decide this one:

Patricia marries Richard in 1973.  She separates from him in 1987, but doesn't divorce him (yet).  She then hangs out with Henry, but in 1988 breaks up with Henry to start dating Jeffrey.  But a couple months later, an apparently persuasive Henry takes her to Reno, sets her up at a buffet, does some tequila shots with her, and boom, they get married that evening.  Remember, by the way, that Patricia's dating Jeffrey at this point and is still married to Richard.  All of which Patricia knows, so she falsely states on her Nevada marriage license that she's had previously divorced Richard.  Not true.

Patricia eventually sobers up and decides, hey, maybe that Henry chap isn't really my cup of tea, and then continues to date Jeffrey.  The next year, Jeffrey finds a picture of Patricia getting married to Henry, and (quite understandably) says:  "What the hell?!"  Patricia tells her the story, and Jeffrey says, babe, you have to get that annulled or something.  Patricia says, yeah, I know, sorry about that, I'll take care of it.

Later that year, Patricia tells Jeffrey:  "Honey, you rock.  I got a divorce from Richard.  I also got the marriage to Henry annulled.  I'm free!"  Jeffrey responds:  "That's great, darling.  Just remember that, for the moment, I'm still married."  Since Jeffrey married Debra in 1970.  Although Jeffrey separated from Debra shortly after he met Patricia, he was still married to her at this point.

Did I mention, by the way, that Patricia was a legal secretary?  And that Jeffrey was, at that time, a law student?  'Cause they were.

Jeffrey then passes the Bar, which is a time of transition for many of us.  And Jeffrey decides to mark the occasion by divorcing his wife, Debra, and marry Patricia.  Which he does.  In 1991, Jeffrey divorces his wife, and the next month, he marries Patricia.  Who had indeed divorced Richard in 1988.

No problem.  Except for one thing.  Debra had indeed divorced Richard, but lied about getting her marriage to Henry annulled.  That hadn't actually transpired.

Fast forward to 2008, at which point Jeffrey files for legal separation from Patricia, and Patricia responds by filing for divorce.  Jeffrey eventually discovers that Patricia did not, in fact, ever out of get her marriage to Henry.  So he then amends his answer to say that the parties don't need to get divorced, since they were never married.  Bigamous marriages being void and all.

To which Patricia responds by essentially saying that Bigamy Plus Bigamy Equals Marriage.  Saying that at the time she married Henry, she was still married to Richard, which meant that she was never really married to Henry, and hence her second bigamy wasn't really bigamy due to the first bigamy.

Which makes for a conundrum.  Because not only do we have to figure out if that's right, but we also have to decide all of the above according to the law of Nevada -- the place where the second marriage transpired. What would Nevada say about all this?

There's a Nevada Supreme Court case that holds, in dicta, that you still need an annulment to get out of your bigamous marriage.  Which Jeffrey and the trial court seize upon to hold that, yep, the parties were not in fact married -- we're talking about Jeffrey and Patricia at this point -- because Patricia never dissolved anything with Henry before marrying Jeffrey.

But the California Court of Appeal reverses.  Holding that, no, that was just dicta, and in a case involving a putative spouse, and that really, Nevada law is probably more like California law, which holds that you don't have to do anything to a bigamous marriage because it was void (not merely voidable) at the outset.  It does not exist, so there's nothing to dissolve.

So Patricia wins.  Even though she's a huge liar.  (I'm crediting Jeffrey's version of the facts here -- as did the trial court -- both because it's eminently more credible as well as because it makes things cleaner.)

But that doesn't end things.  Because, okay, the parties were in fact married.  But does that really mean that Patricia -- the one who entered into the bigamous marriage -- gets to use that bigamy against Jeffrey?  That she gets to defend her marriage to Jeffrey by attacking her marriage to Henry:  a marriage that existed only due to her own fraud?

Because even though we say that bigamous marriages are void -- that they never existed -- that's not, in fact, always the case.  For example, if X has to pay alimony to Y until Y gets remarried, and Y then gets married, a marriage that's bigamous, California holds that Y can't use the bigamy to attack her own marriage:  X gets out of the alimony obligation even though the marriage is in fact void.  Ditto for children:  Kids born during a bigamous marriage are still legitimate (with the appropriate conclusive presumptions) even though we declare the marriage void.  So do we really want to let Patricia take advantage of her own fraud?  Or do these cases suggest that we should instead preclude her from attacking the validity of her own marriage?

Justice Mauro concludes -- and I think correctly -- that it's okay to let Patricia attack her own marriage.  On the ground that, vis-a-vis Jeffrey, he's simply getting what he expected.  He thought that he was marrying someone who wasn't married.  He thought that their marriage was valid.  So it doesn't really create inequity to say, for all intents and purposes, that, yeah, your marriage was indeed valid.  Even though the reason it was valid was not necessarily why you thought it was valid at the time.

There's only one part of the opinion that I would change.  At the end, Justice Mauro awards costs to Patricia.  I'd have had 'em bear their own costs.  Patricia still wins.  But I don't condone what she did.  I think that even though Jeffrey probably should lose, equity would counsel in favor of not making him pay his future-ex-wife's costs.  I figure he's gone through enough.

You'd think that this was a television episode.  Indeed, it should be.  Don't be surprised if you see it on one of those law shows at some point.  But it's real.  Some law firm out there, and one more more lawyers, lived this drama.

Welcome to California.