South Carolina Supreme Court uses James Brown’s estate case to clarify validity of subsequent marriage when prior marriage was void

Posted Wednesday, June 24th, 2020 by Gregory Forman
Filed under Divorce and Marriage, Of Interest to Family Court Litigants, Of Interest to Family Law Attorneys, South Carolina Appellate Decisions, South Carolina Specific

The June 17, 2020 South Carolina Supreme Court case of In Re Estate of Brown, 430 S.C. 474, 846 S.E.2d 342 (2020), appears to finally resolve the estate of the “Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” a/k/a “The Godfather of Soul,” a/k/a “Soul Brother #1.” To reach that resolution the Supreme Court clarified its holding in Lukich v. Lukich, 379 S.C. 589, 666 S.E.2d 906 (2008), which held that the annulment of a prior voidable marriage did not render valid a subsequent marriage that was entered into prior to that annulment. In this case, Tommie Rae Brown attempted to argue that, because her marriage prior to James Brown was actually void as bigamous, and not merely voidable, when that prior marriage was annulled her marriage to James Brown became valid. The Supreme Court wasn’t buying it.

The Supreme Court held that if Tommie had not obtained a formal annulment prior to the time of her attempted marriage to James, her marriage to James could not be validated by her subsequent annulment of the prior marriage. Citing S.C. Code § 20-1-80, the Supreme Court noted that “the General Assembly has declared all marriages contracted while a party has a living spouse are void, unless one of three specified circumstances is established:

All marriages contracted while either of the parties as a former wife or husband living shall be void. But this section shall not extend [1] to a person whose husband or wife shall be absent for the space of five years, the one not knowing the other to be living during that time, [2] not to any person who shall be divorced[,] or [3] [to any person] whose first marriage shall be declared void by the sentence of a competent court.

Emphasis in opinion.

Finding a strong public policy in the accuracy of public records regarding marriage and divorce, the Supreme Court held it was immaterial whether Tommie’s prior marriage was void or voidable at the time she attempted to marry James. Since she did not meet any of the three criteria set forth in S.C. Code § 20-1-80, any attempted marriage to James Brown was invalid. Therefore she was not his surviving spouse.

The Brown case indicates that subsequent marriages undertaken before any of the three criteria of S.C. Code § 20-1-80 are met will not be recognized. Since South Carolina abolished prospective common-law marriages just last year, this code requirement is of even greater significance going forward.

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