Arguing for Bigamy: When the Court Must Decide Between Competing Public Policy Issues
Should a bigamous marriage be recognized in South Carolina if doing so upholds an important legal doctrine? That was the main issue at the center of a case recently decided by the South Carolina Court of Appeals. (You can read the decision in full here: PDF.)
The Background of the Case
Blondell and Charles Gary were married (exactly when is unclear) and had two children together, one of whom is Angel Gary. They later divorced. Then, in 1982, Charles married Doretha Chisholm. They later divorced as well.
Charles then remarried Blondell in 1999 – two years before his divorce from Doretha was finalized in 2001. Charles and Blondell lived together as man and wife from 1999 until Blondell’s death in 2012 in a traffic accident. She and Charles were passengers in an ambulance operated by Lowcountry Medical Transport when the driver lost control and collided with a tree, killing Blondell.
After Blondell’s death, Angel Gary was appointed personal representative to her mother’s estate. In 2012 she filed suit against Lowcountry Medical Transport for actual and punitive damages for the accident that led to her mother’s death. They settled for $2.25 million in 2015.
Later that year, Angel filed a petition to determine heirship to her mother’s estate. She contended that Charles was already married to another woman when he attempted to marry Blondell, and that the marriage between Charles and Blondell was void. Charles argued that he was a rightful heir, but the Circuit Court disagreed, and ruled that his marriage to Blondell was void and he was not heir to Blondell’s estate.
The decision was appealed, which brings us to the case in hand.
Issues of the Case
There are two issues here at odds with each other.
- Parties being judicially bound by their pleadings.
What does this mean? It means that parties that have stated something on the record in a court proceeding are bound to those statements unless they are “withdrawn, altered or stricken by amendment or otherwise.” Essentially, a party cannot take a position contradictory to its pleadings in previous cases.
This was a key defense for Charles. He argued that based on the above doctrine, the Estate must be bound by their previous assertion in the Lowcountry Medical Transport suit that he was the “surviving spouse and beneficiary” of Blondell’s estate.
The Court of Appeals has previously stated that “parties are judicially bound by their pleadings” as a matter of course.
- Bigamous Marriage.
South Carolina, like all other states, outlaws bigamy. It also prevents a common law marriage from forming if there was an impediment at the time of marriage, such as one of the intended spouses being married to someone else. Even if the impediment is removed, the union does not automatically become a common law marriage. (Note that Charles did not attempt to argue that he and Blondell had a common law marriage.)
A similar issue occurred in the 1992 Johns v Johns case in which a woman sued her purported common law husband for divorce, child custody, and financial support. The Court found there was no common law marriage and denied her requests because her purported husband was married to another woman for the entirety of their relationship.
A Matter of Public Policy
On this blog we’ve seen the term “public policy” before, when discussing indemnification clauses and covenants not to compete and NDAs. In the context of contract law, public policy may be a reason to find a contact unenforceable, because enforcing it would be detrimental to the public good.
The Court acknowledges that it comes down to weighing competing public policies in this case. In its decision, it writes, “On one side, we have a marriage which contravened public policy […] On the other, the doctrine of binding a party to its pleadings exists to protect the integrity of the court process.”
In this instance, the Court finds that public policy is better served by not recognizing bigamous marriage: “While ordinarily the Estate may be bound to its previous assertions, we find that policy should yield to the overriding policy against bigamous marriages.” In so doing, it affirmed the Circuit Court decision that Charles was not a rightful heir to Blondell’s estate.
The Law Can Be Complex – Call Gem McDowell
We like to cover recent South Carolina cases from the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court on this blog because it’s important to understand that what happens in these cases has a very real effect on how laws are interpreted in our state and on the work we do for our clients.
The fact is, the law is complex and can change. If you’re facing legal issues having to do with estate planning, business, commercial real estate, or tax law, contact Gem and his associatess at Gem McDowell Law Group in Mt. Pleasant, SC. Gem and his associatess help individuals and families plan their estates with foresight and intelligence to avoid problems in the future. Call today to schedule an initial consultation at 843-284-1021.