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COA: “Commitment Ceremony” Does Not Terminate Spousal Support Obligation

Posted on Wednesday, December 18, 2019

An ex-husband who was ordered to pay spousal support could not have the support terminated after the ex-wife entered into a “commitment ceremony” with another man because the   ceremony was not a legal marriage under Michigan law, the Michigan Court of Appeals has decided.

In Lueck v Lueck (Docket No. 341018), the Court of Appeals reversed the Oakland County Circuit Court’s ruling that the ex-wife’s actions were done to defraud the trial court and to circumvent the parties’ consent judgment of divorce.

“The unambiguous terms of the consent judgment of divorce governs when defendant’s spousal support obligation terminates and those terms were not met by plaintiff’s conduct,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “Therefore, the trial court erred by finding that, although no marriage license was signed, plaintiff acted in a manner that required the termination of defendant’s spousal support obligation.”

Moreover, “the trial court erroneously applied the law to the facts of this case,” the Court of Appeals said. “Consequently, defendant failed to meet his burden to establish that the facts warranted modification of his spousal support obligation.”

Judges James R. Redford, Jane E. Markey and Kirsten Frank Kelly were on the appellate panel that issued the published opinion.

Background

The plaintiff and the defendant, who were married for 29 years, entered into a consent judgment of divorce in 2014. The judgment included a spousal support provision that said the plaintiff would receive spousal support for 10 years, until the plaintiff’s death or until she remarried, whichever occurred first.

The plaintiff began dating Matthew Bassett after the divorce. The two participated in a “commitment ceremony” at the plaintiff’s church. The plaintiff reportedly told a friend that she had “done her homework” and was “only having a spiritual ceremony” with Bassett because it “was not considered legal without a marriage license” and, therefore, she could continue to receive spousal support. The ceremony included traditional Christian vows and the exchange of rings. No witnesses were present at the ceremony and a marriage license was not signed.

The defendant, upon learning of the ceremony, contacted the plaintiff’s attorney, believing his spousal support should end because the plaintiff had remarried. However, the defendant was told that the plaintiff did not have a “legal marriage” and that his support obligation continued.

The defendant then filed a motion with the Oakland County Circuit Court to terminate his spousal support obligation. According to the trial court, “divorce actions are equitable proceedings and a court of equity molds its relief according to the character of the case.” As a result, the trial court ruled that equity required the termination of the plaintiff’s spousal support and granted the defendant’s motion in part.

Marriage License Required

On appeal, the plaintiff argued the trial court erred by ruling that her conduct – engaging in a commitment ceremony – triggered the divorce judgment’s spousal support termination provision.

The Court of Appeals agreed.

Citing MCL 551.101, the Court of Appeals explained that, in Michigan, a marriage license is required to recognize a legal marriage and to obtain certain rights and obligations that come with marriage. “Michigan law does not recognize common law marriage.”

The parties’ consent judgment of divorce included definite terms regarding the duration of spousal support and lacked any reference to future adjustments or modifications, the Court of Appeals noted. “The term ‘remarries’ lacks ambiguity and means only a legal marriage recognized under Michigan law. The record reflects that plaintiff did not marry under Michigan law.”

Although the plaintiff participated in a commitment ceremony that included certain customs found in traditional marriage ceremonies, “absent a marriage license and solemnization as authorized by MCL 551.7 to MCL 551.18, plaintiff’s conduct did not constitute a marriage that triggered the spousal support termination provision of the parties’ consent judgment of divorce,” the Court of Appeals said.

Here, the unambiguous terms of the divorce judgment controlled when the defendant’s spousal support obligation ended – and the plaintiff’s commitment ceremony did not satisfy those terms, the Court of Appeals observed. Accordingly, the trial court erred in holding that the plaintiff’s conduct triggered the spousal support termination provision of the divorce judgment, the Court of Appeals concluded.

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