Fed. Circuit: To prove marriage, use state law

In a recent opinion for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, Judge Mayer writes that state evidence law should be used to prove a couple was married for the purposes of awarding veterans’ survivor benefits. Alabama state law requires “clear and convincing” proof to establish a common law marriage. The court held that this standard of proof must be used for purported Alabama common law marriages, rather than the more lenient “preponderance of evidence” standard usually applied in evaluating veterans claims.

"The wedding ring" by flickr user leehaywood
Shoulda put a ring on it. (A marriage certificate wouldn’t hurt, either.)

The court, reviewing rulings in two cases from the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, interpreted the federal statute defining “marriage” for the purposes of survivor benefits: it says that marriage can be established according to the law of the state where the couple lives. The veterans’ survivors in these cases lived in Alabama, which is one of the jurisdictions that allows for “common law marriage” (D.C. is another). Common law marriage allows couples to prove they are married under certain circumstances without a valid marriage license or certificate.

The Federal Circuit writes that this section of the statute applies not only to what must be proved to establish common law marriage, but also to how much proof is needed. In the case of Alabama, one must prove by “clear and convincing evidence” the factors establishing common law marriage. (Maybe the claimants would have had better luck if they had lived here in D.C., which only requires proof by a preponderance of evidence.)

The lower court had found that the evidence in each case did not meet this heightened state law standard, and the Federal Circuit saw no reason to disturb these rulings.

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