South Carolina Supreme Court refuses to adopt the “putative spouse” doctrine

In the August 28, 2013 opinion of Hill v. Bell, 405 S.C. 423, 747 S.E.2d 791 (2013), the South Carolina Supreme Court refused to adopt the “putative spouse” doctrine, which allows a party who innocently enters a bigamous marriage to claim the benefits of marriage.

Hill came to the Supreme Court as a certified questions from the Federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals.  At issue was who was entitled the surviving spouse benefits of deceased Philadelphia Eagles running back Thomas Sullivan (Thomas).

On March 15, 1979, Thomas married Lavona Hill (Hill) in Maryland. Thomas and Hill separated in 1983, but never divorced. On March 15, 1986, Thomas purported to marry Barbara Sullivan (Barbara) in South Carolina. The record indicates Thomas and Barbara obtained a marriage license, and that Barbara was unaware of Thomas’ prior marriage to Hill. In 1991, Thomas submitted pension forms to the NFL indicating Barbara was his current spouse.

Thomas died on October 10, 2002. Thereafter, Barbara filed a claim with the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan (the Plan), which provides benefits to a player’s “surviving [s]pouse” and defines that term as “a [p]layer’s lawful spouse, as recognized under applicable state law.” In November 2002, the Plan began paying Barbara benefits in the amount of $2,700 per month.

Four years later, Hill contacted the Plan to request benefits. Following an investigation, the Plan suspended payments to Barbara pending a court order identifying Thomas’s surviving spouse. After Hill failed to obtain that order, the Plan resumed payments to Barbara.

In August 2009, Hill filed this action against the Plan in Pennsylvania state court, claiming entitlement to Thomas’s retirement benefits. The Plan promptly removed the case to federal district court and filed an interpleader counterclaim, joining Barbara as a party to the action.

After a bench trial, the federal district court found Barbara and Thomas’s purported marriage void under South Carolina’s bigamy statute because Thomas and Hill never divorced. The district court further found South Carolina had not adopted the putative spouse doctrine, and thus, Hill was entitled to receive Thomas’s retirement benefits as his surviving spouse.  Barbara appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals which, pursuant to SCACR 244, certified the question of whether South Carolina recognizes the putative spouse doctrine to the South Carolina Supreme Court.

The South Carolina Supreme Court held that South Carolina does not recognize the putative spouse doctrine, which is codified in section 209 of the Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act as follows:

Any person who has cohabited with another to whom he is not legally married in the good faith belief that he was married to that person is a putative spouse until knowledge of the fact that he is not legally married terminates his status and prevents acquisition of further rights. A putative spouse acquires the rights conferred upon a legal spouse, including the right to maintenance following termination of his status, whether or not the marriage is prohibited or declared invalid. If there is a legal spouse or other putative spouses, rights acquired by a putative spouse do not supersede the rights of the legal spouse or those acquired by other putative spouses, but the court shall apportion property, maintenance, and support rights among the claimants as appropriate in the circumstances and in the interests of justice.

The Supreme Court’s ruling:

decline[d] to adopt the putative spouse doctrine, as it is contrary to South Carolina’s statutory law and marital jurisprudence. See S.C. Code Ann. § 20-1-80 (Supp. 2012) (“All marriages contracted while either of the parties has a former wife or husband living shall be void.”); Lukich v. Lukich, 368 S.C. 47, 56, 627 S.E.2d 754, 758 (Ct. App. 2006) (“Even if Wife was acting under a good faith belief, South Carolina will not recognize her bigamous second marriage because to do so would violate public policy.”); Day v. Day, 216 S.C. 334, 338, 58 S.E.2d 83, 85 (1950) (“A mere marriage ceremony between a man and a woman, where one of them has a living wife or husband, is not a marriage at all. Such a marriage is absolutely void, and not merely voidable.”); Howell v. Littlefield, 211 S.C. 462, 466, 46 S.E.2d 47, 48 (1947) (“[Husband’s] existing marriage in North Carolina incapacitated him . . . to contract another marriage . . . .”).

South Carolina’s refusal to adopt the putative spouse doctrine is predicated upon the State’s refusal to give any validity to bigamous marriages.  As there is no national marriage and divorce registry it is almost impossible to determine whether the person one is intending to marry is already married to someone else.  Failure to adopt the putative spouse doctrine works a hardship on innocent “spouses” such as Ms. Bell, who enter a marriage believing it to be valid only to learn later–often much later–that is isn’t.

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