Aldrich v. Aldrich

Decision Date02 November 2021
Docket NumberWD 84127
Citation637 S.W.3d 485
Parties Christina M. ALDRICH, Respondent, v. Jonathan E. ALDRICH, Appellant.
CourtMissouri Court of Appeals

Douglas B. Harris, Warrensburg, MO, Attorney for Respondent.

Ashley N. Irwin, Lee's Summit, MO, Attorney for Appellant.

Before Division Four: Cynthia L. Martin, Chief Judge, Mark D. Pfeiffer, Judge, and James E. Welsh, Senior Judge

Mark D. Pfeiffer, Judge

This dissolution proceeding demonstrates the principle that equity may, in certain circumstances, intervene to estop a party from denying the validity of a marital relationship. Though such estoppel does not itself make a marriage valid , it prevents a party to that marriage from taking the position that the marriage is invalid.

Mr. Jonathan E. Aldrich ("Aldrich") appeals from the Judgment and Decree of Dissolution entered by the Circuit Court of Johnson County, Missouri ("trial court"), dissolving his marriage to Ms. Christina M. Aldrich ("Christina"). We affirm.

Factual and Procedural History1

On October 25, 1991, the couple held a formal wedding ceremony in Jackson County, Missouri, attended by approximately 100 guests including both Aldrich's and Christina's family. At that time, Christina was nineteen years old and Aldrich was twenty-nine years old. The ceremony was held in a church and officiated by a minister who was authorized by law to solemnize marriages. During the ceremony, the couple exchanged vows and wedding rings.

The church provided the couple with a "Marriage Covenant," which was signed by Aldrich and Christina, witnesses, and the minister who officiated the ceremony. After the ceremony, Christina changed her surname on her driver's license and social security card using the marriage covenant as proof of the marriage as Christina believed in good faith that she was lawfully married. Although Aldrich told Christina that he would personally "file" the marriage covenant and Christina relied upon Aldrich's representation to that effect, he never filed the marriage covenant or sought any marriage licensing documentation from the State of Missouri.

In February of 2017, Christina discovered that Aldrich had requested sexually explicit photographs from another woman. On December 2, 2018, the couple separated.

All told, Aldrich and Christina remained together for twenty-seven years. They lived together, acquired property together, held themselves out as married, and had three children. The warranty deed to their family home granted them ownership as husband and wife.2 The deed of trust they executed to obtain a mortgage on their family home was granted to them as husband and wife, and so too were subsequent deeds of trust they obtained to refinance their mortgage. Christina was the primary beneficiary of Aldrich's life insurance policy and "children of marriage" were named as the contingent beneficiaries of the same life insurance policy. The couple celebrated wedding anniversaries of their October 25, 1991 wedding ceremony. And, before and during the pendency of this litigation in the trial court, Aldrich represented on tax filings to the State of Missouri and the United States Internal Revenue Service that he and Christina were husband and wife.

In 2019, Christina filed a petition for dissolution of the marriage in the Circuit Court of Johnson County, Missouri. For the first time since their church wedding in 1991, Aldrich asserted the position in his responsive pleading that there was no "valid" marriage. Instead, Aldrich challenged the trial court's jurisdiction3 to dissolve the marriage on the grounds that no marriage license was ever obtained or filed by the parties and, accordingly, the marriage was invalid from its inception. The trial court applied principles of equitable estoppel, concluded that Aldrich was estopped from denying the marriage, and issued a dissolution judgment in June 2020 that, in pertinent part, dissolved the purported marriage, awarded Christina and Jonathan joint legal and physical custody of their minor child, divided the marital property and marital debts and granted Christina an equalization judgment, set aside the real property to Jonathan, granted Christina a judgment for attorney fees, and restored to Christina her maiden name.

Aldrich appeals and seeks reversal of the judgment by way of continuing his attack on the trial court's authority to issue any judgment relating to an "invalid" marriage.

Analysis

Although Aldrich asserts three points on appeal, each of his claims of error turn on whether a valid marriage existed between Aldrich and Christina. The trial court ruled that, notwithstanding any purported invalidity of the marriage, Aldrich was estopped from denying its validity. The trial court reasoned that because he engaged in a marriage ceremony, cohabited, bore children with Christina, enjoyed numerous benefits of marriage for twenty-seven years, and at all relevant times held himself out as married to Christina to banks, governmental agencies, and all others, Aldrich could not now disavow the marriage. We agree.

Standard of Review

" ‘On review of a court-tried case, [we will] affirm the circuit court's judgment unless there is no substantial evidence to support it, it is against the weight of the evidence, or it erroneously declares or applies the law.’ " ADB Cos. v. Socket Telecom, LLC , 618 S.W.3d 237, 244 (Mo. App. W.D. 2021) (quoting Ivie v. Smith , 439 S.W.3d 189, 198-99 (Mo. banc 2014) ). " ‘A claim that the judgment erroneously declares or applies the law ... involves review of the propriety of the trial court's construction and application of the law.’ "

Pierce v. Mo-Kan Sheet Metal Workers Welfare Fund , 616 S.W.3d 409, 413 (Mo. App. W.D. 2020) (quoting Pearson v. Koster , 367 S.W.3d 36, 43 (Mo. banc 2012) ). "This Court applies de novo review to questions of law decided in court-tried cases." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

I. Validity of the Marriage

Since 1921, Missouri has prohibited residents of this state from entering into common-law marriages.4 Thomson v. Thomson , 163 S.W.2d 792, 795 (Mo. App. 1942). "To eliminate common-law marriages, the legislature implemented solemnization and license requirements," otherwise known as a ceremonial marriage. Nelson v. Marshall , 869 S.W.2d 132, 134 (Mo. App. W.D. 1993). The law governing ceremonial marriages in this state has, for the last century, required that a marriage license be obtained from an authorized officer5 and that the marriage be solemnized by a person authorized by law to solemnize marriages. § 451.040.1.

Despite the abolition of common-law marriage in Missouri, "a presumption of a ceremonial marriage arises upon a showing of open cohabitation, declaration and conduct by the parties and general reputation, despite [an] inability to show a marriage license or any record of the issuance of one."6 Hodge v. Conley , 543 S.W.2d 326, 329 (Mo. App. 1976) ; see also Suddeth v. Hawkins , 202 S.W.2d 572, 575 (Mo. App. 1947) ("[T]he ordinary presumption of marriage that obtains where parties have cohabited together and have held themselves out as man and wife" is not destroyed by the abolition of common-law marriages.). This presumption is one of the strongest in the law, although it may be overcome by a clear, cogent, and convincing showing of invalidity. Forbis v. Forbis , 274 S.W.2d 800, 806 (Mo. App. 1955). This presumption applies in any case where the validity of the marriage is challenged.7

The presumption that a ceremonial marriage exists is applicable in this case: Aldrich and Christina held a wedding ceremony attended by upwards of 100 attendees including their family and friends; they cohabited for twenty-seven years; they obtained title to and a mortgage for their family home as husband and wife; subsequent mortgages on the home were also acquired as husband and wife; over the years they filed tax returns under the category of "married filing jointly" and "married filing separately"; the couple's children, family, and friends believed them to be married; and they held wedding anniversaries commemorating their 1991 wedding ceremony.

But, it is undisputed, in fact agreed, that the parties did not obtain a marriage license prior to the October 25, 1991 wedding ceremony or at any time during their relationship. The unambiguous language of subsection 451.040.1 that declares that no marriage shall be recognized as valid unless a license has been obtained makes the license requirement mandatory and not merely directory. See Nelson , 869 S.W.2d at 135 ("Missouri is among the states whose ‘licensing statute plainly makes an unlicensed marriage invalid.’ [T]he court declines to follow those states which have declared their licensing provision as merely directory, and holds the absence of a marriage license as a fatal flaw.") (citations omitted). By failing to obtain a marriage license, the parties did not comply with the law of this state under subsection 451.040.1 to establish a valid marriage.

This is the crux of Aldrich's claim. He asserts that because Missouri does not recognize common-law marriage and a marriage license was never obtained, there was never a valid marriage between himself and Christina. And, therefore, the trial court erred in "dissolving" a marriage that never validly existed and distributing property that was never marital.

What Aldrich fails to appreciate is that his claims do not prevail simply by demonstrating the absence or non-issuance of a marriage license.8 For, Aldrich is not in a position to challenge the trial court's authority based on the assertion that his presumptive ceremonial marriage to Christina was invalid ab initio because they failed to obtain a marriage license. Indeed, Aldrich is equitably estopped from lodging such a challenge.

II. Equitable Estoppel

Generally, the application of equitable estoppel hinges upon...

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  • Craig v. Craig
    • United States
    • Missouri Court of Appeals
    • May 3, 2022
    ...evidence to support it, it is against the weight of the evidence, or it erroneously declares or applies the law." Aldrich v. Aldrich , 637 S.W.3d 485, 489 (Mo. App. W.D. 2021) (quoting ADB Cos. v. Socket Telecom, LLC , 618 S.W.3d 237, 244 (Mo. App. W.D. 2021) ). "[T]he trial court's judgmen......

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