In Duncan v. Duncan, the North Carolina Court of Appeals addressed the issue of a voidable marriage. The Duncans exchanged vows in two separate marriage ceremonies. The first occurred in 1989 and was presided over by a man who held himself out as a Cherokee medicine man and who was ordained as a minister by the Universal Life Church. In 2001, the couples participated in a second ceremony at a Presbyterian church.
Alimony awards are based, in part, on the length of the marriage. Apparently, Mr. Duncan was attempting to limit his potential alimony exposure by arguing that the marriage did not begin until 2001. The pleadings indicate that the couple separated in 2005, so the issue was whether the couple was married for approximately 4 years or 16.
The Court noted that common law marriages are not recognized in North Carolina:
Our Supreme Court has held that “[a] common law marriage or marriage by consent is not recognized by this State.” State v. Lynch, 301 N.C. 479, 487, 272 S.E.2d 349, 354 (1980). Rather, “[t]o constitute a valid marriage in this State, the requirements of G.S. 51-1 must be met.” Id. at 486, 272 S.E.2d at 353.
N.C. Gen. Stat. § 51-1, as it read in 1989, required that the parties “‘express their solemn intent to marry in the presence of (1) an ordained minister of any religious denomination; or (2) a minister authorized by his church; or (3) a magistrate.’” Pickard v. Pickard, 176 N.C. App. 193, 196, 625 S.E.2d 869, 872 (2006) (quoting State v. Lynch, 301 N.C. 479, 487, 272 S.E.2d 349, 354 (1980)).
Whether the 1989 marriage ceremony met these requirements is a bit of an open question. The majority opinion concluded that Mr. Duncan met his burden of showing that the 1989 marriage ceremony did not meet the requirements of G.S. § 51-1. The minority opinion concluded differently.
Ultimately, however, the case turned on the issue of whether Mr. Duncan would be permitted to claim that the marriage was invalid after he had participated in the 1989 ceremony, which he knew, or should have known, may not have complied with North Carolina law. The Court of Appeals concluded that the Duncans were equally negligent in relying on the supposed Cherokee medicine man’s credentials to conduct their wedding.
The Court then applied the doctrine of equitable estoppel. Under this doctrine, a party who is silent about or conceals important facts from the other party, may not later take advantage of that deception. The Court would not allow Mr. Duncan to participate in the 1989 wedding ceremony, go about his life for 12 more years as if he were married and then attempt to argue that the 1989 ceremony was bogus.
This case is unusual in that the Duncans may have had what was essentially a common law marriage. However, the Court of Appeals would not allow Mr. Duncan to use that fact to limit his alimony exposure because of his somewhat disingenuous legal position.