Articles Posted in Informal Marriage

iStock-1270267953Texas is one of the few states that still recognizes “informal marriage,” also sometimes known as “common law marriage.” A party who petitions for divorce from an informal marriage  often must  prove the existence of the informal marriage in the first place. To prove there was an informal marriage, the party must show the couple had an agreement to be married, subsequently lived as spouses together in Texas, and represented themselves as married. Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 2.401. Furthermore, all of these elements must occur at the same time.  Evidence of an informal marriage may include evidence the parties addressed each other as spouses, conducted themselves as married people, or lived together. Evidence that the parties lived together and represented themselves as married is not alone sufficient to establish the existence  of an agreement to be married.

In a recent case, an alleged husband challenged the court’s finding of the existence of an informal marriage. The parties moved to Texas from Colorado with the alleged wife’s two children in 1985. They separated in early 2012.  In 2015, the alleged wife filed a trespass to try title suit, claiming joint ownership in real property due to an informal marriage.  That lawsuit was consolidated with her subsequent divorce action.

The trial court ultimately found the parties had been in an informal marriage.  The court granted a divorce and divided their property.  The husband appealed, arguing there was insufficient evidence to support the existence of an informal marriage.

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Texas, unlike many states, still recognizes common law marriage (also known as an “informal” marriage). Unlike with formal marriages, a common law spouse often has to prove that the marriage even existed before getting a divorce.  A party may prove that an informal marriage exists by showing that the parties agreed to be married, then lived together as spouses in Texas, and represented themselves to others as married.  TEX. FAM. CODE ANN. § 2.401(a)(2).

In a recent case, a woman challenged a determination that she and her former romantic partner had not established the existence of an informal marriage.  After they broke up, the man filed for a declaratory judgment that there was no informal marriage, but the woman counter-petitioned for divorce, alleging that they were informally married.  The woman argued they had an informal marriage starting in August 2014, but the man argued they had only been “boyfriend/girlfriend” or domestic partners.

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Usually, in a Texas divorce case, both parties know and agree that they were married.  In some cases, however, the parties may disagree as to whether there has been an informal marriage.  An informal marriage can be proven by showing that the couple agreed to be married, subsequently lived together in Texas as spouses, and represented themselves as married.  TEX. FAM. CODE ANN. § 2.401.  Texas courts have held that evidence that the parties held themselves out as married must be particularly convincing and be more than occasional references to each other as husband or wife.

A mother recently challenged a court’s finding that she had not been informally married to the father of her children.  The couple had two children together, one who was six and the other who was 21.  The mother petitioned for divorce, arguing that she and the father married on or about 1996.  In his answer, the father stated there was no existing marriage.

At the hearing, the mother testified that she believed she and the father had agreed to be informally married when they moved in together.  She said the father introduced her to his friends and family as his wife.  She admitted, however, that she always filed her taxes as single.  She also conceded that her name was not on the deed to the house, and it instead named the father and his father as the owners.

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In In re Interest of JJFR, a man appealed from the denial of his motion for summary judgment, arguing there was insufficient evidence to prove his partner and he had entered into an informal marriage. In Texas, an informal (or common law) marriage under Texas Family Code §2.401(a)(2) can be proven by using evidence that a man and woman agreed to be married and after agreeing lived in Texas as husband and wife and told others they were married.

Informal marriages exist only if all three elements are present. Whoever wants to establish that there is an informal marriage needs to prove these elements by a preponderance of the evidence.

In the current case, the woman claimed there was an informal marriage and carried the burden of proof. The appellate court explained they could overturn an order on the ground of insufficient evidence only if the findings were so contrary to the overwhelming weight of the evidence they were obviously unfair and wrong.

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The legalization of same-sex marriage may only be a few months old, but Texas’ informal marriage laws may provide for marriage recognition dating back decades. On June 26, 2015 the United States Supreme Court issued its ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, legalizing same-sex marriage in every state of the Union. Since the rendering of the Court’s ruling, counties across the state of Texas have issued thousands of marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Upon receipt of a marriage license, these couples become eligible to enter into formal marriage. However, Texas also recognizes informal marriage, frequently referred to as common law marriage. Texas allows parties to an informal marriage to hold, as their legal wedding date, the earliest date at which all statutory requirements of an informal marriage were satisfied. What does this mean for same-sex couples who satisfied the statutory requirements before the legalization of same-sex marriage in Texas?

Under the Texas Family Code, an informal marriage may be proved by evidence that: (1) a declaration of marriage has been signed; or (2) by showing that the parties agreed to be married and after the agreement they cohabited together, in Texas, as a married couple, and represented themselves to others, in Texas, to be married. (see Texas Family Code 2.401). Upon satisfaction of the second prong, the couple may file a declaration of marriage and list, as their date of marriage, the earliest date at which all requirements were concurrently satisfied. Of course, same-sex couples are now afforded the ability to enter into informal marriage. The question is, however, will same-sex couples who satisfied all requirements of the law be allowed to declare their marriages to a date prior to June 16, 2015?

Initially, it was believed that state officials would hold that same-sex common law marriages could not be dated before June 26, 2015, as same-sex marriages were void ab initio under the law. However, with respect to a recent declaration of marriage filed by a same-sex couple in Tarrant County, Texas, the Texas Department of State Health Services stated that “Applicants, regardless of gender, may apply for an informal marriage license using any date applicable to their relationship.” Accordingly, this Tarrant County couple was allowed to date their informal marriage to 1992.

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