Marriage of Sumners, In re

Decision Date03 January 1983
Docket NumberNo. 12568,12568
Citation645 S.W.2d 205
PartiesIn re Marriage of Sharon SUMNERS and Jerry L. Sumners. Sharon SUMNERS, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Jerry L. SUMNERS, Defendant-Respondent.
CourtMissouri Court of Appeals

Meredith B. Turner, Lynn E. Heitman, Turner, Reid, Duncan & Loomer, P.C., Springfield, for plaintiff-appellant.

Donald E. Bonacker, Bonacker & Reynolds, P.C., Springfield, for defendant-respondent.

G. Michael Baker, Springfield, Guardian ad Litem.

HOGAN, Judge.

This is an action to dissolve a marriage. By amended answer filed with leave of court, defendant Jerry Lee Sumners challenged the jurisdiction of the court over the subject matter of the action. The trial court heard and determined the matter as provided by Rule 55.27(c). It concluded the parties' marriage was void and dismissed the action. Plaintiff appeals.

The defendant has been married four times. He married Alma, his first wife, by whom he has two children, in Kansas in September 1955. Defendant and Alma were divorced on December 30, 1957, but were remarried in Oklahoma the following month. Defendant and Alma were again divorced in Kansas on September 29, 1961. At some time in 1961, defendant moved from Wichita to Omaha. He married Patricia O'Neil in Nebraska on December 12, 1961. Patricia sued the defendant for divorce in the District Court of Douglas County, at Omaha, in 1963. On October 18, 1963, that court entered a default decree awarding Patricia an "absolute divorce." The decree concludes: "IT IS FURTHER ORDERED THAT NEITHER PARTY TO THIS DIVORCE MAY REMARRY WITHIN SIX MONTHS OF THE DATE OF THIS DECREE." Defendant testified he received a copy of this decree shortly after it was entered. The record is entirely silent concerning Patricia after the divorce; it may be inferred from the Nebraska decree that she was present when that decree was entered on October 18, 1963.

The defendant began courting the plaintiff in July or early August 1963. The ardor of their courtship increased, and plaintiff became defendant's paramour approximately 1 month after the decree was issued. Plaintiff's knowledge of the terms of the decree was made an issue on trial. We do not regard her appreciation of its effect controlling. It is fairly inferable that she became aware of its content during the early years of the parties' marriage, but we regard the defendant's knowledge of the prohibition against remarriage as superior to hers. Nebraska law would charge defendant with knowledge of the terms of the decree. Cf. Loringer v. Kaplan, 179 Neb. 215, 137 N.W.2d 716, 718-719[4, 5] (1965).

Defendant proposed marriage to the plaintiff "[f]ormally with a diamond ring on December 14th of 1963." The parties immediately made plans to be married in Iowa, even though they were residents of Omaha and intended to remain in Nebraska. They finally decided to be married at a church 250 miles east of Omaha. The church is designated the "Little Brown Church in the Vale." Both parties testified the name of the church had romantic appeal. With deference, we think candor was better served by defendant's answer when he was closely cross-examined about the parties' choice of matrimonial forum. Defendant testified that he and the plaintiff had discussed a plan to be married and chose the church in Iowa because "there was a waiting period in the State of Nebraska, and when [plaintiff] come [sic] up pregnant, naturally, she was going to show, and we didn't want her friends and everyone else to know that we had to get married. So, in my own way of thinking, going into the State of Iowa, I thought we [would] legally, to a point, be married, because I knew there was a waiting period in Nebraska." A marriage ceremony was performed at the "Little Brown Church in the Vale," in Chickasaw County, Iowa, on January 31, 1964, a little more than 3 months after defendant's divorce from Patricia.

The parties lived together in Nebraska as husband and wife from the date of their marriage in 1964 until November 15, 1968. In 1968 they moved to Lawrence County, Missouri, and thereafter lived together as husband and wife, except for one period of separation, until they were finally separated on February 23, 1980. Proof of the parties' cohabitation is abundant; they are the natural parents of a son born August 18, 1964, another son born October 4, 1965, a third son born December 22, 1967, and a daughter born December 23, 1974. All these children have attended school in Missouri and have been held out as the parties' children. Since 1965, the parties have filed joint income tax returns as husband and wife; they have acquired several parcels of realty as tenants by the entirety.

The course of the litigation is, to a degree, informative. The petition for dissolution was filed in Lawrence County on April 25, 1980. Defendant filed a timely answer on May 9, 1980, admitting the existence of a lawful marriage between him and the plaintiff and averring the execution of a "separation agreement" in July 1976. Prayer of the answer was for dissolution of the marriage, distribution of the marital property "and the proceeds thereof" described in the separation agreement, as provided in the said agreement, and for distribution of the "remainder" of the marital property. Contemporaneously, the defendant filed an application for a change of judge; on June 25, 1980, another judge was assigned to hear the cause.

On September 8, 1981, plaintiff filed a reply, denying the existence of any separation agreement "which applies to the current proceeding." Plaintiff further averred that after the parties separated in July 1976, they were thereafter reconciled and lived together as husband and wife, and alternatively alleged that the agreement was "unconscionable, and was entered into by [plaintiff] under duress." On October 6, 1980, plaintiff filed a motion for temporary allowances; this motion was heard and taken under advisement on January 7, 1981. On February 6, the trial judge entered an elaborate order awarding temporary allowances to the plaintiff, and on May 8, 1981, disqualified himself. On July 15, 1981, a third judge was assigned to hear the cause. On September 16, 1981, the defendant moved to file an amended answer, alleging that when the original answer was filed in May 1980, counsel was unaware of the provisions of Nebraska law but that subsequent research had disclosed that the defendant's Nebraska divorce did not terminate his marital status for 6 months. The amended answer sets up in paragraph 7 that "[t]he parties were never married" because at the time the Iowa ceremony was celebrated, the Nebraska decree had not become final and therefore the Iowa marriage was void. The defendant was permitted to file this amended answer, and a hearing was held to determine the parties' marriage status on November 10, 1981. On November 23, 1981, the cause was dismissed.

The legal file discloses that while the cause was pending and between May 9, 1980, and November 23, 1981, when the judgment of dismissal was entered, two sets of interrogatories were filed by each party. Both sets were answered. With few exceptions, the questions propounded in the interrogatories have to do with the property and property records in possession of one or another spouse. The separation agreement aside from the recital that the parties are husband and wife, is remarkable only because it assigns to the defendant the parties' most productive source of income, the defendant's interest in a Nebraska corporation known as Service Vending Corporation. We have recited the procedural facts only to give cast or color to the basic nature of the controversy before the trial court and the appeal before this court. We would carefully note and have it most clearly understood that we suggest no impropriety whatever upon the part of the defendant nor his counsel; the fact of lawful marriage is jurisdictional. We do believe, though we cannot be sure, that the real matter in issue is the same matter presented in most dissolution appeals: The award and distribution of marital assets.

When the validity of a marriage has been assailed in a divorce or other proceeding, our courts have applied a rule of law called a "presumption." At least since 1860, Missouri has consistently adhered to the presumption that a second or subsequent marriage is valid. Klein v. Laudman, 29 Mo. 259, 261 (1860). Sometimes it has been said that the presumption is a "presumption of law." The nature and incidents of the presumption were stated at length by our Supreme Court in Carr v. Carr, 232 S.W.2d 488, 489 (Mo.1950):

"Defendant, who asserted the invalidity of his marriage to plaintiff, had the burden of proof upon the issue, even though the issue required proof of a negative fact difficult to prove.... And where a valid first marriage has been shown, as in the instant case, it may be presumed that, at the time of the second marriage, the first marriage had been dissolved, either by a decree of divorce, or by the death of the former spouse.... The presumption of the validity of the last marriage may be repelled only by the most cogent and satisfactory evidence...."

Other cases stating the nature, incidents and force of this presumption are: Osmak v. American Car & Foundry Co., 328 Mo. 159, 40 S.W.2d 714, 77 A.L.R. 722 (1931); Maier v. Brock, 222 Mo. 74, 120 S.W. 1167, 133 Am.St.Rep. 513, 17 Ann.Cas. 673 (1909), and Forbis v. Forbis, 274 S.W.2d 800, 806-807[16-20] (Mo.App.1955). See, generally, Annot., 14 A.L.R.2d 7 (1950).

The defendant relies, primarily, upon the statutory law of Nebraska. At the time defendant was divorced from Patricia O'Neil, Nebraska law provided that a divorce did not become final or operative until 6 months after trial and decision, R.S. 42-340 (1943), and the Supreme Court of Nebraska quite uniformly held that a...

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  • State v. Byrd
    • United States
    • Missouri Supreme Court
    • September 11, 1984
    ... ... Byrd were married in Georgia in September of 1978. However, it also introduced a marriage license issued in 1976 to defendant and Evelyn McQueen ...         Defendant testified that he had indeed married Evelyn McQueen, that he ... See In re Marriage of Sumners, 645 S.W.2d 205, 208 (Mo.App.1983); see also Annot., 14 A.L.R.2d 7 (1950). We are also cognizant of the general statement that the presumption is ... ...
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  • Aldrich v. Aldrich
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