In family law, as with many areas of the law, it pays to pay close attention to “the fine print.” Each detail and every term of any legal agreement into which you enter has the potential to have a profound impact on you. For example, if you agree in a marital settlement to pay alimony until your ex-spouse’s death or your ex-spouse’s remarriage, the law and the courts will hold you to that. As a result, if you want to end your alimony payments, you’ll need clear proof of an actual marriage, not just evidence that your ex is holding herself out as married to her new partner. That was what ultimately defeated one Southern California husband’s case, recently decided by the Fourth District Court of Appeal.
Garry and Gina Grant were a California couple who finalized their divorce in 2010. Prior to that final order, the couple had reached a Marital Settlement Agreement resolving, among other things, alimony. The agreement said that the husband would pay the wife $2,000 per month, every month, until one of them died or the wife remarried. The agreement stated that no other circumstance would be sufficient to allow any modification of any kind.
In 2014, the wife went back to court, seeking a clarification of the support order. Her central complaint was that the husband’s payments were generally late and made out to “The Parasites.” As part of this action, the husband argued to the court that it should end the support obligation entirely because the wife was married, or holding herself out as married, to her new partner, Dr. Markus Lenger. The husband had some evidence to back up this claim. At a symposium at which Lenger spoke, his bio stated that he lived “with his wife Gina.” The wife had also bought a home together with Lenger, the couple shared at least one bank account jointly, the wife had filed for a patent under the name “Gina Helen Lenger,” and she held herself out as “Gina Lenger” on at least one email account. The wife and Lenger also set up a revocable trust of which they were the co-trustees. On some federal income tax documents, Grant had listed Lenger’s daughter as her “stepchild.”
Despite all this evidence, the husband still lost in the appeals court. Why? Ultimately, it came down to the wording in the settlement agreement that the husband signed. Under the terms of that agreement, his alimony obligation could only end if he died, she died, or she remarried. There was no avenue for ending the alimony obligation because the wife entered into a new supportive relationship or even held herself out as remarried. Had the husband been able to insert a provision stating that alimony terminated upon the wife’s remarriage or cohabitation, the outcome might have been different.
The agreement this husband signed, however, required legal remarriage, and the husband had no evidence that his ex-wife and Lenger had actually married. The wife had evidence that, when she filed her taxes, she filed as “Gina Grant… head of household, unmarried.” The wife testified that Lenger and she had never undergone a marriage ceremony, planned a marriage ceremony, or obtained a marriage license.
California law is very clear regarding the definition of remarriage. The law says that alimony terminates upon a supported spouse’s remarriage, and a 2012 appeals court case unequivocally stated that this “requires entry into a legal marriage.” For all the husband’s evidence, he had nothing to show that his ex-wife and Lenger had ever entered into a legal marriage in any location. The mere fact that the wife had listed Lenger’s daughter as her “stepchild” was not, by itself, enough to prove that a marriage had taken place. The wife and Lenger’s various acts that tended to show them holding themselves out as married were legally insufficient. “A person can hold herself out to be many things. A person can call herself married. It does not mean she is… There are certain formalities for a valid marriage that must be met, none of which includes declaring yourself married. If those formalities are not met, there is no marriage, as here.” Without a copy of the marriage license or similar conclusive proof, the husband wasn’t entitled to a termination of his alimony obligation.
Whether you are contemplating entering into a marital settlement agreement, have an issue with alimony, or are facing some other type of family law matter, it helps to have experienced counsel on your side. The skilled San Diego divorce attorneys at Doppelt & Forney have been assisting clients throughout Southern California, including in San Diego, Encinitas, La Jolla, and Chula Vista, for many years and can help you with your divorce or alimony issues. For a free consultation, reach out to Doppelt & Forney through our website or call toll-free at (800) ROY IS IT (769-4748).
More blog posts:
California Court Interprets Agreement’s ‘Cohabitation’ Language to Require ‘Committed Relationship’, San Diego Divorce Lawyer Blog, Sept. 27, 2016
California Court Upholds Modification of Spousal Support, Cites Family Code Factors, San Diego Divorce Lawyer Blog, Feb. 2, 2016