I Do…I Do…Wait, Did We?: The Virginia Supreme Court Weighs in on the Timing of Marriage Licenses and Ceremonies

Imagine you’ve thought you were married for a decade and all of a sudden your spouse denies that you were ever married at all.  The Virginia Supreme Court (the “Court”) recently decided just such a case in Levick v. MacDougall.  The central issue in that case was whether a married couple must first obtain a marriage license before “solemnizing” their marriage.

The facts were straightforward: Richard and Deborah were “married” on December 21, 2002 at a celebration at Richard’s house with friends and family.  The officiant, on the day of the “wedding”, discovered that Richard and Deborah had not obtained a marriage license.  The officiant suggested that they go forward with the ceremony anyway and that the couple obtain a marriage license as soon as possible.  Around two weeks later, on January 6, 2003, the parties went to the local courthouse to obtain a marriage license.  They then mailed it to the officiant.  The officiant received the marriage license, filled it out on January 21, 2003, and wrote on the certificate that Richard and Deborah were married on January 21, 2003. 

Sadly, their “marriage” did not work out and the couple filed for divorce about ten years later.  Around this time, Richard and Deborah signed a martial agreement which was intended to form the foundation for a later separation agreement.  In such agreement, Richard agreed to pay Deborah $150,000.00 in spousal support annually and also her health insurance premiums.  He also agreed to divide equally the marital home’s sale proceeds.  Richard also agreed to provide Deborah with a certain percentage of the sale proceeds of his company should he ever sell.

During the divorce proceedings, Richard argued that the two were never married at all given the 16 day delay between the marriage license having been obtained and the “ceremony”.  The Circuit Court (the trial court for divorces in Virginia) agreed with Richard and held that the marriage and agreement were invalid.  The Court of Appeals of Virginia (the lower appellate court for divorce cases) disagreed and held that the marriage was not necessarily void but rather voidable (meaning that a party would have to file a lawsuit to seek the judicial voiding of the marriage or contract).  The Court of Appeals of Virginia also refused to enforce the marital agreement between the parties.

The Virginia Supreme Court affirmed the marriage largely on public policy grounds and relied on the strong presumption of validity of marriage in Virginia.  The applicable statute is Virginia Code Section 20-13 which states that “Every marriage in this Commonwealth shall be under a license and solemnized in the manner herein provided.”  The Court held that when Richard and Deborah went to the courthouse to obtain the license, albeit after the “ceremony”, they reaffirmed their mutual intent to marry.  The Court held that the marriage was “solemnized” once the officiant signed the license, based on Richard’s and Deborah’s intent to be married as evidenced at the courthouse and at the “ceremony”.

Interestingly, the Court pointed out that Virginia requires no particular form of marriage ceremony, and  that celebrants and officiants may agree to a particular manner of solemnization, even unconventional ones.  The Court further pointed out that since the timing and sequence of the license and ceremony are not specified by the General Assembly, courts should not micromanage such processes.  The Court was also willing to admittedly overlook the possibility that the officiant may have violated Virginia law by not filing the marriage certificate within 5 days of the ceremony.  Ultimately, the Court held that Richard had not rebutted the strong presumption in favor of marriage.

There was a strong dissenting opinion written in this case which asserted that Virginia law requires that  solemnization must occur after, and under, a valid marriage license. Further, the dissent argued that marriage is governed by the legislature and requires strict compliance with the requirements of the Code of Virginia.

In analyzing this opinion, one must wonder what impact, if any, the substantial wealth of the parties, and the consequent potential hardship that Deborah would face if the marriage had been held invalid, had on the Court’s decision-making.

Given the serious dissent in this case, it is quite possible that the General Assembly may step in and re-write the applicable Code sections to try to avoid future ambiguity.

While this case focused on marriage, it could have real implications in the trust and estates context as well, particularly with regard to long-time but unmarried companions. Could this case possibly entice some less scrupulous, unmarried companions to rush to the local courthouse for a quick marriage license near the end of their partner’s life?

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