Conflicting testimony as to common law marriage results in child inheritance of estate

Conflicting testimony as to common law marriage results in child inheritance of estate

If you don’t have a will or beneficiary designation of assets, inheritance is determined by state law which is called intestate succession. If the deceased was married at the time of death but has no will, then a surviving spouse will have some inheritance rights under Texas law. A determination of “common law or informal marriage” (when there is no marriage certificate) is made by a court or jury.

In the Texarkana case entitled “Estate of Martin”, a jury decided last year that there was no common law marriage after hearing conflicting evidence on (1) agreement to be married; (2) living together as husband and wife; and (3) representing to others that they are married. The facts were as follows:

  1. Billy (the deceased) had one child, Travis, who was not a child of Summer, the alleged common law spouse.
  2. Summer moved into Billy’s home in 2012 and considered herself to be Billy’s wife.
  3. Summer said there was a written agreement that they were married but could not produce the agreement.
  4. Summer said she was given a ring and she wore it.
  5. Summer said she used Billy’s last name (Martin) on some documents, but neither her Social Security card nor her driver’s license used Billy’s last name.
  6. Summer moved out of Billy’s home prior to his death and lived and had a consensual relationship with Billy’s former friend, Godwin, who tried to give her an engagement ring.
  7. Billy’s mother considered Billy and Summer as common law married.
  8. Summer’s friend, Savannah, testified that (1) Billy called Summer his wife; (2) Summer wore a wedding ring; and (3) they held themselves out as husband and wife.
  9. Jeffery, the father of Summer’s niece, also thought Billy considered Summer as his wife, but said neither wore a wedding ring.
  10. One of Billy’s closest friends, Autumn, testified (1) they were not married; (2) Billy never claimed Summer as his wife; (3) neither wore a wedding ring; (4) heard of no celebration of an agreement to get married (as Summer claimed without proof); (5) Summer was living with Godwin at the time of Billy’s death; (6) Summer used Billy’s last name only after his death; and (7) Billy had a will leaving nothing to Summer and all to Billy’s son, Travis.
  11. Another of Billy’s friend’s also testified that (1) Billy and Summer were not married and never made an agreement to be married; (2) Billy did not wear a wedding ring; (3) Billy didn’t call Summer his wife; (4) Billy knew of Godwin’s intent to marry Summer and that Billy wanted his estate to go to Travis.
  12. Billy’s death certificate, prepared by the funeral home, stated they were married which was signed by the Justice of the Peace.
  13. The next day after the funeral certificate was issued, Crystal, a woman who claimed to be Billy’s girlfriend at the time of his death, asked that the death certificate be changed since she said he wasn’t married.

After hearing the testimony, the jury concluded Summer and Billy were not married for several reasons: (1) no proof of agreement to be married; (2) since Summer moved in with Godwin, cohabitation could be ended at any time unlike a marital relationship; (3) an occasional “holding out” of marriage was insufficient and (4) the death certificate alone was not enough to prove marriage.

If Summer and Billy were married at the time of his death, she would have been entitled to a 1/3 life estate interest giving her the right to live in Billy’s home for the remainder of her life even though it was Billy’s separate property. She would also be entitled to 1/3 of his personal property (if it was separate property) and ½ of any community property (since Travis was not Summer’s child).

(1) Just living together and occasional references to a spouse may not be enough to prove marriage.

(2) If you want something to pass to a significant other, then have a will or trust.

(3) If you have a will or trust, give to more than one person (in addition to the significant other), if you fear that it may be destroyed.

If interested in learning more about this article or other estate planning, Medicaid and public benefits planning, probate, etc., attend one of our free upcoming Estate Planning Essentials workshops by clicking here or calling 214-720-0102. We make it simple to attend and it is without obligation.

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