Key point 3-04. All states permit clergy to perform marriage ceremonies. However, some states permit only “ordained” or some other classification of clergy to perform marriage ceremonies. It is important for clergy to determine if they are legally authorized to perform marriages under applicable state law, and in addition to be aware of the legal qualifications for marriage and any license and reporting requirements prescribed by state law.
A man who in all respects lived with his wife for 27 years as husband and wife was barred from claiming that the marriage was invalid and therefore his scheme to avoid alimony payments to her did not work.
On October 25, 1991, a couple held a formal wedding ceremony in Jackson County, Missouri, attended by approximately 100 guests, including both the husband’s and wife’s families. At that time, the wife was 19 years old and the husband was 29 years old.
The ceremony was held in a church and officiated by a minister who was authorized by law to solemnize marriages. During the ceremony, the couple exchanged vows and wedding rings.
The church provided the couple with a “Marriage Covenant,” which was signed by both spouses, witnesses, and the minister who officiated the ceremony. After the ceremony, the wife changed her surname on her driver’s license and Social Security card using the marriage covenant as proof of the marriage as she believed in good faith that she was lawfully married.
Although the husband told his wife that he would file the marriage covenant, he never did or sought any marriage licensing documentation from the state of Missouri.
In February of 2017, the wife discovered that her husband was having an affair with another woman, and on December 2, 2018, the couple separated.
The couple had remained together for 27 years. They lived together, acquired property together, held themselves out as married, and had three children.
The warranty deed to their family home granted them ownership as husband and wife. The deed of trust they executed to obtain a mortgage on their family home was granted to them as husband and wife, and so too were subsequent deeds of trust they obtained to refinance their mortgage.
The wife was the primary beneficiary of her husband’s life insurance policy and “children of marriage” were named as the contingent beneficiaries of the same life insurance policy.
The couple celebrated wedding anniversaries of their October 25, 1991, wedding ceremony. And they represented on tax filings to the state of Missouri and the United States Internal Revenue Service that they were husband and wife.
Husband: There was no “valid” marriage
In 2019, the wife filed a petition for dissolution of the marriage. For the first time since their church wedding in 1991, the husband asserted the position in this litigation that there was no “valid” marriage. Instead, the husband challenged the trial court’s jurisdiction to dissolve the marriage on the grounds that no marriage license was ever obtained or filed by the parties and, accordingly, the marriage was invalid from its inception.
The trial court ruled that, notwithstanding any purported invalidity of the marriage, the husband was prevented from denying its validity.
The trial court reasoned that because he engaged in a marriage ceremony, cohabited, bore children with his wife, enjoyed numerous benefits of marriage for 27 years, and at all relevant times held himself out as married to banks, governmental agencies, and all others, he could not now disavow the marriage.
On appeal, the husband sought a reversal of the trial court’s judgment and continued his attack on the trial court’s authority to issue any judgment relating to an “invalid” marriage.
Appeals court: the presumption that a ceremonial marriage exists
The appeals court began its opinion by addressing the central issue of whether the couple’s marriage was legally valid:
Since 1921, Missouri has prohibited residents of this state from entering into common-law marriages. … “To eliminate common-law marriages, the legislature implemented solemnization and license requirements,” otherwise known as a ceremonial marriage. … The law governing ceremonial marriages in this state has, for the last century, required that a marriage license be obtained from an authorized officer and that the marriage be solemnized by a person authorized by law to solemnize marriages. …
Despite the abolition of common-law marriage in Missouri, “a presumption of a ceremonial marriage arises upon a showing of open cohabitation, declaration and conduct by the parties and general reputation, despite [an] inability to show a marriage license or any record of the issuance of one.” … (“[T]he ordinary presumption of marriage that obtains where parties have cohabited together and have held themselves out as man and wife” is not destroyed by the abolition of common-law marriages.) This presumption is one of the strongest in the law. … This presumption applies in any case where the validity of the marriage is challenged.
The court concluded that the presumption that a ceremonial marriage exists is applicable in this case:
[The husband and wife] held a wedding ceremony attended by upwards of 100 attendees including their family and friends; they cohabited for twenty-seven years; they obtained title to and a mortgage for their family home as husband and wife; subsequent mortgages on the home were also acquired as husband and wife; over the years they filed tax returns under the category of “married filing jointly” and “married filing separately”; the couple’s children, family, and friends believed them to be married; and they held wedding anniversaries commemorating their 1991 wedding ceremony.
But, it is undisputed, in fact agreed, that the parties did not obtain a marriage license prior to the October 25, 1991 wedding ceremony or at any time during their relationship. The unambiguous language of [the marriage statute] that declares that no marriage shall be recognized as valid unless a license has been obtained makes the license requirement mandatory and not merely directory. … By failing to obtain a marriage license, the parties did not comply with the law of this state … to establish a valid marriage.
This is the crux of the husband’s claim. He asserts that because Missouri does not recognize common-law marriage and a marriage license was never obtained, there was never a valid marriage. … And, therefore, the trial court erred in “dissolving” a marriage that never validly existed and distributing property that was never marital.
The court concluded that what the husband failed to appreciate was that
his claims do not prevail simply by demonstrating the absence or non-issuance of a marriage license. For, [he] is not in a position to challenge the trial court’s authority based on the assertion that his presumptive ceremonial marriage … was invalid [from the beginning] because [the couple] failed to obtain a marriage license. Indeed, [he] is equitably estopped from lodging such a challenge.
The court continued:
“[E]ven if it were conceded that no [marriage] license was obtained before the ceremony, [the husband’s] efforts to argue there was no marriage must fail. The record shows that [he] does not stand before the court as a party entitled to deny the marriage. [He] engaged in a marriage ceremony, cohabitation, and other conduct consistent with the existence of a marriage relationship. He obtained the benefits of marriage … and lived the life of a married man. He participated in bringing children into the marriage and did not disavow the existence of a marriage. … [He] never, until after [his wife] decided to seek dissolution, informed [her] that he would take the position that there was no marriage. He now seeks to avoid the marriage only to deprive [his wife] of the relief which the law would provide her. He has no equitable basis to seek to avoid the marriage; therefore, he is precluded by equitable estoppel from raising an objection to the court’s … jurisdiction. …”
Despite [the husband’s] current claim that he was never married … he did not challenge the validity of the marriage at any point preceding the commencement of this litigation. In fact, [he] held himself out as married and fully availed himself of the many benefits of marriage—for twenty-seven years. He enjoyed the intimate bond between spouses, brought children into the marriage, and had a devoted spouse who left her career behind to raise their children. He also enjoyed the protections of holding property as tenants by the entirety. And, as the primary wage earner of the household, he took full advantage of the tax deductions afforded a married couple by filing as “married” instead of “single.”
At all relevant times, [the wife] believed herself to be lawfully married and acted in good faith on that belief. She changed her surname using the marriage covenant to effectuate that change. She testified at trial that she relied on the validity of the marriage when entering into loan contracts that could be accelerated or defaulted if a misrepresentation was later discovered. [She] relied on the validity of the marriage when, for twenty-seven years, she did not enter the workforce full-time or pursue educational opportunities. [She] testified that she would not have cohabited nor bore children … if they were not married, and these assertions are supported by the fact that the couple did not cohabit or have children until after their wedding ceremony. And, but for her good-faith belief that she was married, [she] would not have represented on tax filings to the State of Missouri and the United States government that she was married.
Despite the many benefits that he garnered, [the husband] declares that a marriage never existed between [the parties]; that is, now that it is advantageous for him to so claim. If [the husband] is allowed to disavow the twenty-seven-year presumed marriage he shared with [his wife], it would not only deprive her of certain financial awards that she received in the judgment of dissolution and for which she is entitled but would effectively denominate their children as illegitimate, expose them to criminal and civil liability for income tax fraud, and place them in default with their creditors.
What this means for churches
This case illustrates two important points regarding marriage licenses.
First, most states forbid a minister from performing a marriage unless the couple has obtained a marriage license. In many states, such licenses are obtained from the county recorder’s office.
Licenses are obtained by completing and submitting an application to the appropriate government office, along with the applicable fee. License applications generally ask for biographical and residential information.
Licenses usually are valid for only a specified period of time, and only in the county in which they were issued. Many states impose a “waiting period” of a few days after an application for a license has been submitted until the license may be issued.
Second, in most states, procedural defects associated with a marriage ceremony do not necessarily invalidate the legal validity of the marriage. Rather, the consequence for such defects is criminal sanctions on the officiating minister. Despite the fact that a marriage license had not been completed or filed with the state, the court in this case concluded that the marriage was valid because the couple had lived together as husband and wife for 27 years.
Ministers should be familiar with the license requirements under local law and share this information with engaged couples. Many counties publish pamphlets for engaged couples that summarize the license requirements. It would be a good practice for ministers to have a supply of these publications on hand.
As noted above, ministers may be criminally liable for marrying couples who cannot produce a valid and unexpired marriage license. In general, however, the courts are inclined to validate a marriage despite procedural defects and hold the officiating minister liable for the error.
Well in advance of a marriage, the minister should request a copy of the marriage license and ensure that it does not expire prior to the wedding date.
Aldrich v. Aldrich, 637 S.W.3d 485 (Mo. App. 2021)