Court Fails to Recognize Common Law Marriage in Etowah County, Alabama

This is a case that originated out of Probate Court in Etowah County related to an estate. The common law wife filed a claim against the estate asserting that she was the legal spouse of the deceased. The issue in this case was whether the parties were common-law married. The Probate Court ruled that a marriage did not exist between the parties. The wife appealed the case.

Here is a summary of the facts. Kathy Watkins filed an action claiming that she was common law married to Robin Watkins. Robin Watkins died intestate on March 1, 2012. At trial, Kathy testified that she met her husband Rob in 2008. Rob declared that he wanted to marry her but that he could not go through a ceremony because he continued to own business enterprises with his former wife.

In December 2008, Kathy testified that the two of them took a honeymoon trip to Jamaica. The parties continued to live in separate homes except for a couple days a week. Kathy moved in with Rob in 2011 and he gave her a wedding ring.

Rob was in a car accident and his son asked Kathy to make the decision about whether to remove Rob from life support because she was his wife. Kathy filed a tax return as “married, separate” in January 2012. The husband filed his tax return as single. An attorney who was familiar with Rob testified that the Husband told him the parties were married in Jamaica. The husband’s children testified from a previous marriage that a marriage did not exist between the parties.

In Alabama in order to establish a common law marriage, a party must show: (1) capacity, (2) present, mutual agreement to permanently enter the marriage relationship to the exclusion of all other relationships; and (3) public recognition of that marriage, cohabitation, and a public assumption of marital duties. Common law marriage must be proven by clear and convincing evidence. “Although evidence was presented at trial that could support a finding of a common- law marriage, that evidence was not in any way contradicted, as asserted by Kathy on appeal.”

Kathy argued that Rob made the marriage public in the county where they lived and only avoided public recognition in the county where his former wife lived. The Court relied an Ohio case to reach a decision that in order to establish a common law marriage as valid, it cannot be kept a secret.
The Court concluded that although the wife presented clear and convincing evidence that she and Rob represented that they were husband and wife, that was not enough. The court held in Watkins v Watkins, “Because common-law marriages are closely scrutinized and the burden of proving the existence of a common-law marriage is high, we cannot conclude that the trial court erred in determining that Kathy and Rob’s stated intent to keep their marriage a secret to at least one entire community, as argued by Kathy on appeal, negates any assertion that Kathy and Rob had held themselves out to the ‘public’ as a married couple.”
This case shows that the wife had all the elements necessary to prove common-law marriage. The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision. I believe that this case could have gone either way. The lesson to learn from this case is that if you are common law married, take out an advertisement in the local paper to publicly announce your marriage.

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