Estate of Murnion, Matter of

Decision Date28 August 1984
Docket NumberNo. 83-385,83-385
Citation686 P.2d 893,41 St.Rep. 1627,212 Mont. 107
PartiesIn the Matter of the ESTATE OF Michael W. MURNION, Deceased.
CourtMontana Supreme Court

Regnier, Lewis & Boland, Tom L. Lewis argued, Great Falls, Garlington, Lohn & Robinson, Missoula, for appellant.

Sandall, Cavan & Smith, Robert C. Smith and John J. Cavan, Jr., argued, Billings, Crowley, Haughey, Hanson, Toole & Dietrich, Billings, for respondent.

SHEEHY, Justice.

Sherry Lynn Hart, as guardian of Katrina P. Murnion, a minor, appeals from a judgment and order of intestacy and determination of heirs entered by the District Court, Sixteenth Judicial District, Rosebud County, in the probate proceedings of the estate of Michael W. Murnion, deceased, to the effect that the decedent was survived by Pauline Jean Imel, his wife at the time of his death, and by Katrina P. Murnion, his daughter by a prior marriage.

The issue, sine qua non, which pervades this case is whether Pauline Jean Imel was the common-law wife of the decedent, Michael W. Murnion at the time of his death. The District Court determined that she was his surviving wife. We affirm the judgment of the District Court.

Michael W. Murnion died as a result of a fall from a scaffolding apparatus upon which he was working in the course of construction of unit no. 4 at Colstrip, Montana. As explained by respondent in her brief, his heirs are entitled to receive Workers' Compensation benefits in the amount of approximately $240 per week which would be split equally between the deceased's daughter, Katrina, and his surviving wife, Pauline, should she be found to be his spouse. If not, Katrina is entitled to the full amount of Workers' Compensation benefits until age 25, if she attends college. A surviving wife is entitled to Workers' Compensation benefits until death or remarriage.

As a surviving spouse, Pauline would be entitled to share equally in the distribution of Michael's estate which includes the proceeds of the survival portion of a civil action pending. The civil action is one for survival and wrongful death, brought against Shurtleff and Andrews, Inc., a Utah corporation, and Bechtel Power Corporation, Montana Power Company, Puget Sound Power and Light Company, Portland General Electric Company, Pacific Power and Light Company, and Washington Power Company. These defendants in the civil action did not appear in the estate proceedings.

The proceeds of the civil action for survival and wrongful death may be substantial. Katrina and Pauline, if she is the surviving spouse, have independent causes of action for wrongful death, and both will be entitled to recover on their claims from the proceeds of the third party suit in accordance with a court apportionment. If, however, Katrina is the sole heir, she would be the sole beneficiary of the estate, and of the third party action for wrongful death.

In addition, there are life insurance benefits payable through the Boilermaker's Union, of which Michael was a member; $1,089.63 of those benefits are payable to the estate, and $46,000 is payable to his surviving spouse, and if none, to his child, Katrina.

In attacking the judgment of the District Court, the guardian of Katrina raises these issues:

1. The District Court under choice of law principles, improperly applied Montana substantive law to an alleged common-law marriage by oral agreement which was illegal in the State of Washington.

2. The District Court's findings of fact and conclusions of law which determine that Pauline was a common-law wife of the decedent are not supported by substantial credible evidence, are clearly erroneous, and are contrary to law.

3. The District Court's alternative conclusion of law that even if Pauline was not a common-law wife, she is entitled to the rights of a putative spouse under section 40-1-404, MCA, is clearly erroneous in this case.

In resolving these issues, we look first to the findings of fact to determine if under Rule 52(a), the fact findings are clearly erroneous, for if so, the conclusions which the District Court drew from such findings must clearly fall. In equitable causes, if the issues are close, a degree of deference is accorded the findings of the trial court since it is in a better position to make decisions of fact; and the duty of the Supreme Court in reviewing an action of an equitable nature is to proceed under section 3-2-204(5), MCA, and to review independently all questions of fact as well as questions of law; which still allows us to uphold the District Court on questions of fact unless there is a decided preponderance of the evidence against its findings. Rase v. Castle Mountain Ranch, Inc. (Mont.1981), 631 P.2d 680, 38 St.Rep. 992.

The District Court, in making its findings of fact, outlined the essential portions of the evidence upon which it relied, and gave reasons for distinguishing the items of fact relied upon by the guardian to dispute the common-law marriage. Rather than attempting to paraphrase the findings of the District Court, we find it simpler here, for the benefit of the reader, to set them forth in full as an appendix to this proposed opinion.

The guardian's attack against the propriety of the findings of fact is based on (1) inconsistent items of fact, (2) the presumption that cohabitation illicit in its inception is presumed to be illicit throughout, and (3) the argument that the facts do not indicate that the parties contemplated a present assumption of marriage, but rather an intention to marry in the future.

The guardian insists that the following items of fact refute an existing common-law marriage between Michael and Pauline at the time of his death:

She utilized the name Pauline G. Imel on her October 21, 1981, application for employment; she did not identify on that application the name of Pauline Murnion, although she identified other names that she had used; she transferred bank accounts to Colstrip in the name of Pauline G. Imel; Michael listed his marital status as "single" on his employment application; they purchased a trailer as tenants-in-common using their own names; they purchased an apartment house in Billings, also using their own names as tenants-in-common; and similar documentary evidence.

Those items of fact, standing alone, would negate the assumption of a common-law marriage between the parties. Each item, however, was explained in the testimony, and the District Court accepted the explanation as valid. The issue of marriage really depended on the credibility of Pauline G. Imel. The District Court, having an opportunity to observe her and her demeanor on the stand, accepted the explanations. Moreover, the close members of Michael's family, his father and mother, and his brother, all supported Pauline in her contention that she was married to Michael. In our review of the facts, giving deference as we do to the trial court because it sees and hears the witnesses, we find that substantial credible evidence supports the District Court in its findings, and they are not clearly erroneous. The evidence here is not weak but strong that the parties held themselves out as husband and wife during their period of residence in Montana. On appeal, we review evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, and the credibility of witnesses and the weight accorded their testimony we leave to the District Court's determination in nonjury trials. Farmers State Bank v. Mobile Homes, Unlimited (1979), 181 Mont. 342, 593 P.2d 734.

The second consideration relating to the findings of fact is the guardian's argument that when a relationship is illicit in its inception between a man and a woman, the illicit relationship is presumed to have continued throughout the period of cohabitation. That is a proper statement of the law, and the burden rests upon the party asserting a valid marriage, in this case Pauline, to show that the relationship changed to a lawful relation by a marriage. Stevens v. Woodmen of the World (1937), 105 Mont. 121, 71 P.2d 898. The effect of a presumption, of course, is to place the burden on the other party to overcome the presumption. We determine that Pauline has met that burden by showing that their original meretricious relationship changed into a lawful one with their agreement to marry.

It is to be remembered, however, that there is a counter presumption, though disputable, that a man and woman deporting themselves as husband and wife have entered into a lawful contract of marriage. Section 26-1-602(30), MCA. This Court in Welch v. All Persons (1926), 78 Mont. 370, 384, 254 P. 179, 182, stated that the presumption in favor of matrimony is one of the strongest known to the law and that every intendment of the law is in favor of matrimony, which presumes morality and not immorality, marriage and not concubinage, legitimacy and not bastardy. Estate of Swanson (1972), 160 Mont. 271, 502 P.2d 33.

The third attack on the findings is that the parties contemplated doing something further to formalize the marriage and until that was done, no marriage had occurred. Again the District Court explained in its findings that although the parties intended to do something further to formalize their marriage, to please Michael's parents, and to accommodate society, this intention to formalize did not conflict with the agreement they had made to become husband and wife. We agree with the District Court in this conclusion.

We turn now to a further issue raised by the guardian against the order of the District Court, the guardian's claim that under Washington law, which does not recognize common-law marriage, the alleged marriage between Michael and Pauline was invalid, and that Washington law should apply in this case.

The guardian's choice of law argument comes in two main thrusts, (1) that if Washington law applies, a common-law marriage is invalid and (2) that if Montana substantive law applies, the common-law...

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  • Snetsinger v. Montana University System
    • United States
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    ...is one of the strongest known to the law and that every intendment of the law is in favor of matrimony...." Estate of Murnion (1984), 212 Mont. 107, 113, 686 P.2d 893, 897. Indeed, this statutory presumption is "itself sufficient to establish the marriage unless overcome by other evidence."......
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    ...the district court's findings of fact if they are not clearly erroneous. Section 3-2-204(5), MCA; See Matter of Estate of Murnion, 212 Mont. 107, 111, 686 P.2d 893, 896 (1984). Considering the record, we conclude that the District Court did not err in refusing to apply the doctrine of lache......
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1 books & journal articles
  • Beyond DOMA: choice of state law in federal statutes.
    • United States
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    • June 1, 2012
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