Department of Revenue issues common law marriage ruling

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On February 1, South Carolina’s Department of Revenue issued SC Revenue Ruling 21-3 concerning common law marriage. You can read the ruling in its entirety here.

I love the topic of common law marriage because it because it reminds me of the movie “The Big Chill”. “The Big Chill” is one of my husband’s favorite movies, in fact, it’s up there with “Brave Heart” and “Casablanca”. Several years ago, we celebrated a milestone birthday by inviting two couples who were friends from law school to the mountains for a “Big Chill Weekend” of eating great food, playing great music* and reminiscing about the old days. We did agree to eliminate drugs and spouse swapping from the Big Chill agenda.

Effective July 24, 2019, the South Carolina Supreme Court abolished common law marriage in South Carolina.** This rule will be prospective only. Parties may no longer enter into a valid marriage in South Carolina without a license.

Hang on. I will explain how the movie and common law marriage in South Carolina connect for those two young to remember the news. (And the connection has nothing to do with our Big Chill weekend.)

When the movie was being filmed in the winter of 1982-83 in Beaufort, actor William Hurt was living with Sandra Jennings, a former dancer in the New York City Ballet. Ms. Jennings became pregnant with Mr. Hurt’s son, Alexander Devon Hurt, who was born in 1983. The couple lived together in New York and on the road from 1981 – 1984.

When the couple split, Ms. Jennings brought suit in New York claiming a share of Mr. Hurt’s substantial assets, based on the theory that they had established a common law marriage during the few months they lived in South Carolina. She sought a divorce. Child support was not an issue because Mr. Hurt was paying $65,000 per year to support the couple’s son. Common law marriages hadn’t been recognized in New York since 1933, so the claim was based on South Carolina law and the short time the couple lived together in Beaufort.

Ms. Jennings was not successful in the lawsuit, but litigation is very expensive, and the story got lots of mileage in South Carolina. The standing line was that actors had to be careful in this state! Maybe the cast can finally return for a sequel.

The Supreme Court stated that the time has come to join the overwhelming national trend, despite our legislature’s failure, to abolish common law marriage. The court said, “The paternalistic motivations underlying common-law marriage no longer outweigh the offenses to public policy the doctrine engenders.” 

I know some other outdated ideas I’d like to see abolished in South Carolina.

The Revenue Ruling acknowledged the abolishment of common law marriage and stated that any couple living in South Carolina in a common law marriage established prior to July 24, 2019 is married for federal and state income tax purposes and must file their returns using the filing status “married filing jointly” or “married filing separately”. They cannot file using the filing status “single”.

On or after July 24, 2019, according to the Revenue Ruling, unmarried South Carolina couples must obtain a marriage license to use the filing status “married filing jointly” or “married filing separately”.

If a couple entered into a valid common law marriage in another state, , South Carolina continues to recognize the couple as married when they establish their domicile in South Carolina, according to the Revenue Ruling.

Dirt lawyers recognize that common law marriage can make a huge difference in title and probate matters, so this Revenue Ruling is a good reminder for us.

* Favorite lines from the movie which demonstrate, in part, why it’s a favorite: Michael: “Harold, don’t you have any other music, you know, from this century?” Harold: “There is no other music, not in my house.”  There is no other music in the Manning house either. 

Favorite movie trivia: The dead guy, the corpse being dressed for his funeral in the opening scenes, was played by none other than Kevin Costner. There were plans to have flash-back scenes to the characters’ college antics, but those scenes were later eliminated.

** Stone v. Thompson, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27908 (July 24, 2019).

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