Family Law Keyed to Weisberg

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Topic /161
Jennings v. Hurt

Citation. Jennings v. Hurt, 1990 N.Y. LEXIS 3046, 76 N.Y.2d 870, 561 N.E.2d 884, 560 N.Y.S.2d 984 (N.Y. Sept. 11, 1990)

Brief Fact Summary. Jennings and Hurt met when Hurt was married. The couple lived together in South Carolina, and Hurt stated that they were married in the eyes of God after his divorce.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. In a relationship where one of the parties was already married, the party claiming a common-law marriage must show by a preponderance of the evidence that the relationship underwent some fundamental change following the removal of the impediment

Facts. Jennings and Hurt met in New York in 1981 and began living together. They ceased living together in 1984. When the relationship began Jennings knew Hurt was still married. Hurt explained that marriage was not in the cards. In spring of 1982 Jennings became pregnant, prompting Hurt to commence divorce proceedings to terminate his marriage. In October 1982 Jennings joined Hurt in South Carolina until January of 1983, where they shared the same house and bed. In December 1982 Jennings learned that Hurt’s divorce was final when he approached her with a pre-nuptial agreement and said that they should sign the agreement, have blood tests, and get married. After they went to a Notary Republic to have the agreement signed a fight ensued regarding the agreement, and Hurt stated that they were married in the eyes of God. Jennings claims to be Hurt’s common-law wife based on these events.

Issue. Is Jennings the common-law wife of Hurt?

Held. The evidence is insufficient to prove that a common-law marriage was established.
South Carolina recognizes common law marriages. New York abolished common law marriages, but does give effect to common-law marriages if they are recognized as valid under the law of the state in which it was supposedly contracted.

Documents indicated that shortly after December 23, 1982 Hurt received another draft of an agreement the parties had been discussing with one another and with counsel; that on December 27, 1982 Hurt’s signature was notarized on the document entitled “Paternity acknowledgement, and that on December 28, 1982 Jennings signature was notarized on a sublease for her New York apartment. That Hurt signed a paternity acknowledgment is inconsistent with any intention to marry, but is consistent with Hurt’s testimony that although he was unequivocally committed to the child, he had deep reservations about his relationship.

The only evidence introduced of holding forth as husband and wife in South Carolina is a conversation with parties in connection with the renting of accommodations in which Hurt referred to Jennings as his wife and a telephone call by Hurt to Jennings’ obstetrician in which he asked about his wife. The community in South Carolina knew Jennings and Hurt where not married. Nor is there a preponderance of evidence that they held themselves out as husband and wife after December 27, 1982.

The courts of South Carolina are reluctant to declare a common-law marriage unless proof of such marriage is shown by strong and competent testimony. Jennings claims stem from a large extent to Hurt’s utterance that they were married in the eyes of God and had a spiritual marriage. Even if credible, this statement does not demonstrate intent to solemnize a marriage but rather a desire to continue the parties’ present state of living together.

In a relationship such as this where one of the parties was already married, the party claiming a common-law marriage must show by a preponderance of the evidence that the relationship underwent some fundamental change following the removal of the impediment. The evidence shows a paucity of any declaration or acknowledgement of the parties of a marital state.

Discussion. The court determines that although New York recognizes common-law marriages established in other states, the evidence is insufficient to establish a common-law marriage was established when the couple lived in South Carolina.