Is Your Marriage Valid?

Thinking about divorce? Concerned about alimony? Want to divide property? Many people who file for divorce may sadly discover they were not married legally, and can’t divorce! For one couple, the lack of a valid marriage led to a federal fraud case.

Florida Marriages

First off, common-law marriages have been abolished in Florida since 1968. In order to be validly married, you need a license. It may seem like a mere formality, but couples who want to be married must apply for a license.

There is a fee for getting a marriage license, and that fee is reduced for attending pre-marital counseling. The license is valid for 60 days. The officiant at the ceremony must certify that the marriage was solemnized.

The certified marriage license must be returned to the clerk or an issuing judge within 10 days, and the clerk or judge is required to keep a correct record of certified marriage licenses.

I have written about Florida marriages and divorces before. Florida courts have repeatedly warned people that they cannot depart from the requirement of the Florida Statutes to have a license, otherwise the courts would be re-creating common-law marriages.

Don’t Forget your License

In the fall of 2004, Jonathan Arnold and Leticia Villarreal exchanged marriage vows in California in a ceremony solemnized by both a priest and a rabbi. But they forgot to file their marriage license as required by law.

Shortly before their license expired, the county sent them a reminder letter that the license had not yet been filed, and that they needed to file it to complete the legal process. The couple forgot, and the license expired unfiled.

Their relationship deteriorated, they separately filed for divorce — she in California, he in Illinois. However, both divorce cases had to be terminated when they found out that they were never married.

By not filing their marriage license, they could not divorce, could not make claims for equitable distribution or community property, and could not ask a court for alimony. That can be a devastating result for many couples.

Making a Federal Case out of it

Arnold sued Villarreal in federal court in Illinois alleging various fraud claims and seeking compensatory damages totaling about $1 million. He also sought an additional $1 million in punitive damages. He claimed that she tricked him into believing the two were legally married to induce him to give her gifts, including the California condo.

The trial judge threw out the case as “frivolous” and he appealed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. The appellate court found that Arnold has utterly failed to confront what two district judges recognized: that his fraud claims are not merely meritless but are frivolous.

The panel of judges concluded that he only filed his appeal simply to harass Villarreal.

As Judge Grady drily noted, the courts “are not a proper venue for petty score-settling.”

The opinion is available here.