In Texas, an informal or common law marriage can occur if the couple executed an informal marriage agreement pursuant to Texas law or agreed to be married and subsequently lived together as married in Texas and represented to others that they were married.
A Texas court recently found that a couple did not have an informal marriage, despite filing their taxes as “married filing jointly.” The couple began dating in 2003 or 2004. The man proposed in 2005, and the woman accepted. They moved to Texas together in 2006. They wanted to build a horse clinic where the man would practice veterinary medicine and the woman would train horses. They purchased property together and built the clinic. They had joint bank accounts, but the bookkeeping for each business was kept separate.
They filed joint tax returns indicating they were “married filing jointly” from 2006 to 2013. They co-habitated until 2013. The woman filed for divorce in 2015. After a bench trial, the trial court found the couple did not have an informal marriage and dismissed the divorce case. The woman appealed.
A person claiming an informal marriage exists must show the parties agreed to be married and “intended to have present, immediate, and permanent marital relationship…” Texas courts have held that isolated references to a person as a spouse are generally insufficient to show the existence of an informal marriage. Evidence that the couple lived together and held themselves out as married may be some proof of an agreement to be married, but they must be “particularly convincing” to show an agreement to be married.
The woman argued the evidence was legally sufficient to establish the elements of an informal marriage and the trial court’s failure to find an informal marriage was against the great weight of the evidence. She challenged several of the court’s findings, including findings that the couple “did not agree to be married,” “did not agree to live together in Texas as husband and wife,” and did not represent they were married. She argued there was conclusive and undisputed evidence that showed an informal marriage as a matter of law. She also argued in the alternative that the court’s adverse findings were against the great weight and preponderance of the evidence.
The appeals court found there was conclusive evidence in the record that the couple had lived together in Texas.
The appeals court then considered whether there was a present agreement to be married. Courts are to consider the totality of the circumstances in determining if such an agreement exists. The woman claimed the couple agreed to be married when the man proposed and gave her a ring, which she argued he designed to look like a wedding band. The man argued that when he asked if she would marry him, he meant they would get married “in the future.” He testified they did not have a conversation where they presently agreed to be husband and wife. He also testified the woman used her maiden name because they were not married. He testified he designed the ring to prevent it from snagging on things.
The woman also pointed to the tax returns reflecting a married status. The man admitted that he signed them, but argued that he had not really read the returns. He said the woman worked with the accountants who prepared the returns and his signature did not show an agreement to be married.
The appeals court considered a previous case, which it held tax return filing status was not prima facie evidence of holding out as married, but instead went to the weight of the evidence to be considered. In that case, the court also found the purported husband was listed as “a single man” on the deed of the farm that couple bought together.
In the current case, each party was represented as “a single person” on various documents related to the purchase of the property for the clinic. They also signed a Financial Statement to a bank for a loan. There was a hand-written note listing “Common Law Married” under “Marital Status.” The woman admitted she made the alteration and that the man was aware of it at the time he signed the document. The man argued the alteration was not there when he signed.
The couple also asked the woman’s father to help finance the clinic by mortgaging land he owned that was intended for his son. The woman’s father testified he and his son agreed to mortgage the land because they believed the couple was married, and that he would not have done so for a “friend.” The man testified he had asked the woman’s father as her business associate, not as her husband.
The appeals court found that, although there was some evidence of an agreement to be married, there was not “convincing evidence” to support the agreement. The woman therefore had to show by convincing evidence that the couple cohabited and held out to others that they were married. The appeals court found she had shown cohabitation, and then considered whether she had established that they had held themselves out as married.
Whether the “holding out” element is met depends on whether the couple had a reputation as being married. The accountants who prepared the tax returns and the banker who arranged one of their loans testified they believed the couple was married. However, the banker contradicted himself on cross-examination and stated the marital status was irrelevant to whether the loan was approved. The woman’s father and brother also testified that the couple was married.
The man’s mother testified she had not heard her son refer to the woman as his wife. She also testified that the woman had told her she would not marry the man because she could not trust him. Co-workers from the clinic gave contradictory testimony as to whether the couple referred to themselves as married. Several clients testified they had not heard the couple refer to themselves in that way.
The appeals court found occasional references that they were husband and wife were insufficient to show that the couple held themselves out as married. Furthermore, the testimony from various witnesses did not establish the couple had a reputation or public status in the community that they were married. The appeals court affirmed the lower court.
As this case shows, it can be difficult to show the existence of an informal marriage. If you are facing the end of a long term relationship that may be an informal marriage, a Texas family law attorney can help you.
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