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Why Common Law Marriage was Just Abolished in South Carolina
Common law marriage will no longer be recognized in South Carolina. In making this determination, the Supreme Court of South Carolina joins the trend of several other states who have already put an end to the practice over the years.
This decision comes in the context of a case from family court and offers some interesting insights into the purpose of public policy and how society’s changing mores affect the law and its interpretation.
Where Did Common Law Marriage Come From?
Before we look at why it was abolished in SC, let’s look at where it came from.
Common law marriage comes from pre-Reformation Europe and arrived in the new world from England during colonization. Not all states adopted common law marriage, but the majority did at some point.
At the time, this institution made a lot of sense. America was sparsely populated, particularly in the Midwest and the West, and it was difficult to find and/or travel to religious or government officials to marry two people. It was also a way to add some legitimacy to a situation that would otherwise be seen as objectionable, e.g., living together, children out of wedlock, and women with children who might otherwise rely on the state for assistance.
However, times and situations have changed drastically, and the institution doesn’t make as much sense as it once did.
Common Law Marriage in Modern Times
In its decision (which you can read here), the Court states that “the common law changes when necessary to serve the needs of the people” and that it will act when it is “apparent that the public policy of the State is offended by outdated rules of law.”
Common law marriage is, indeed, outdated. Cohabitation before marriage, children born out of wedlock, and single mothers are widely accepted today without stigma, and rights to child support and inheritance no longer depend on marital status. Getting married legally is easy and inexpensive, and therefore there are no substantial practical barriers to marriage as there once were.
In addition, common law marriage presents some thorny problems. Namely, how do you know when you have entered into a common law marriage, since (by definition) there is no formal ceremony or documentation, and how are courts supposed to make that determination when asked? What if one party of a couple believes they are married, but the other party doesn’t? What happens when a couple like this decides to split? These issues were central in the case at hand.
Married or Not Married?
A. Marion Stone, III and Susan B. Thompson met in the 1980s and began dating. In 1987, they had a child together, and in 1989 they had a second child and began living together. For approximately twenty years following this, they lived together, raised kids, and managed rental properties. The relationship ended when Thompson discovered Stone was having an affair.
In 2012, Stone sought declaratory judgement that the two were common law married, a divorce, and an equitable distribution of alleged marital property. The family court held a trial to determine whether the two were common law married. After hearing evidence from both sides – including witness testimony on how they introduced themselves as a couple, proof of cohabitation, joint financial documents, and so on – the court concluded that Stone and Thompson were common law married starting in 1989, and so awarded over $125,000 to Stone in attorney’s fees and costs. The family court stated that the evidence showed a “presumption of marriage that could only be refuted by strong, cogent evidence they never agreed to marry.”
The South Carolina Supreme Court Disagreed
The Supreme Court disagreed, not finding the evidence as overwhelming as the family court did. Some witnesses said Stone and Thompson introduced each other as husband and wife, while others didn’t; some documents were signed jointly, others singly; and the children had their mother’s last name only until 2000, when their father’s last name was added. There was a period of time from 2005-2008 where documents were signed as though a married couple – medical documents and an application for a mortgage loan – but the Supreme Court viewed these as evidence of seeking financial benefits through the appearance of marriage, not as an indication of actual marriage.
Ultimately, common law marriage requires mutual understanding and assent. Both parties must understand what common law marriage is and express a desire for it, and understand that the other feels the same way. The Court didn’t find that this was the case with Stone and Thompson, and therefore reversed the family court’s decision (and the decision for Thompson to pay Stone’s attorney’s fees).
Prospective, Not Retrospective – and a Stronger Test
The Court notes that while it does have the power to “undo” current common law marriages, it’s reserving this right of retrospective power and its decision applies only prospectively. From the date of the Supreme Court’s decision (July 24, 2019) forward, you may only be married in South Carolina with a valid license.
At the same time, the Court took the opportunity to strengthen the test of validity of current common law marriages. “A heightened burden of proof is warranted,” which it calls an “intermediate” standard: more than a preponderance of the evidence but not to the level of beyond a reasonable doubt. The “clear and convincing evidence” standard used for matters of probate “should also apply to living litigants.”
The Supreme Court states that the “right to marry is fundamental, and so is the right not to marry” so it cannot be an institution that people enter into unwittingly. Furthermore, the Court can’t “see inside the minds” of litigants, it “must yield to the most reliable measurement of marital intent: a valid marriage certificate.”
Keeping Up with Changes in the Law
Though South Carolina is following in the footsteps of other states in ridding the practice of common law marriage, this is still a big step. It’s important to remember that laws can change, as can the interpretation of them, and that these changes can have very real consequences for residents of the state.
This is especially true for estate planning when it comes to complicated family dynamics. To make sure you’re covered, work with an experienced estate planning attorney Gem McDowell. He and his associates at the Gem McDowell Law Group in South Carolina can help you plan ahead and make sure your estate planning documents are in order. Schedule your free consultation by calling 843-284-1021.