Sister Wives Can’t Share the Retirement Account – Update on Bigamous Marriage in South Carolina

1167997_10201920719567398_1881456886_nRecently the South Carolina Supreme Court was asked to answer a question for the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit about the status of South Carolina law related to a putative spouse – someone who is commonly believed to be married to someone else.  In the case of Lavona Hill v. Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan; Retirement Board of the Bert Bell NFL Player Retirement Plan v. Barbara H. Sullivan, Thomas Sullivan who happened to be a former football player in the NFL was married to Lavona Hill.  They separated but never divorced.  Then, several years later, Mr. Sullivan “married” Barbara Sullivan.  The facts of the case indicate that Ms. Sullivan had no knowledge of Mr. Sullivan’s prior marriage to Ms. Hill and had no idea that he was not divorced from her.  Now, Mr. Sullivan’s “wives” are fighting over who receives Mr. Sullivan’s NFL retirement benefits – or should they share them.

South Carolina law is pretty clear that a bigamous marriage is void ab initio.  Specifically, S.C. Code §20-1-80 states, “All marriages contracted while either of the parties has a former wife or husband living shall be void. But this section shall not extend to a person whose husband or wife shall be absent for the space of five years, the one not knowing the other to be living during that time, not to any person who shall be divorced or whose first marriage shall be declared void by the sentence of a competent court.”  That means, no matter what, the marriage is void and cannot be made into a valid marriage.

The issue here is that Ms. Sullivan had no idea that Mr. Sullivan was still married when she married him and she lived with him as his wife from their marriage in 1986 until his death in 2002.  It would seem that Mr. Sullivan would probably want the woman he lived with as being married for over 20 years to receive his benefits and she did.  Then, four years later Ms. Hill petitioned the plan to receive the benefits.  A lawsuit was subsequently filed by Ms. Hill to seek the retirement benefits and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals posed the question to our state Supreme Court asking whether our law supported the “putative spouse doctrine.”  That would mean that even though Ms. Sullivan was not actually married to Mr. Sullivan because he was legally married to someone else, she could still lay claim to marital benefits if she was “married” to him in good faith with no knowledge of the fact of marriage.  In this case the court could divide marital benefits up between the wife and putative wives as appropriate based on the circumstances and what promotes justice.

The Court held that South Carolina does not recognize the putative spouse doctrine because “it is contrary to South Carolina’s statutory law and marital jurisprudence.”

Lessons learned:

  1. When you decide to divorce your spouse, make sure you follow through and are actually divorced.
  2. When you decide to get married.  Make sure your significant other is “available” to be married and not still married to someone else.


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