Thursday, June 9, 2011
If one person in a relationship believes the couple is married and the other says they're not, what does the law say?
A Maplewood woman divorcing her husband of 18 years argued she should be treated as a spouse because she had a "good-faith belief" that they were legally married.
Initially wed in the Hmong tradition, Su Xiong and Choa Yang Xiong described themselves as husband and wife, obtained a marriage license and filed taxes and bought houses and insurance together as a married couple.
They did not, however, get a marriage certificate. The husband, Su Xiong, argued in court that this meant they were not legally married.
But the state Court of Appeals agreed with a Ramsey County district judge this week that the woman was a "putative spouse" under Minnesota law, with all the benefits that implies.
"It's very sordid, kind of a horrible situation," said Jon Geffen, attorney for the wife, Choa Xiong.
"She stayed home and raised seven kids; he built a business," Geffen said. "She'd have no claim to any of the property and business that accumulated in those years, which are substantial."
Choa Xiong's divorce filing of December 2008 says the couple owned and sold many homes over the years. They owned Century Auto Repair and Body Shop until they sold it in 2007 for $660,000. They also owned several international businesses, including a financial institution and a supermarket in Thailand, three houses, 11 lots for fruit and tree businesses and a pig farm.
Choa Xiong, now 39, came to the United States from a refugee camp in Laos when she was about 16, according to the appeals court decision. She spoke no English. When she graduated from high school four years later, she could read only basic words in English.
Su Xiong, on the other hand, was eight years older and had some college education. He was also more experienced in American life.
Because of those factors, and their culture, Geffen said, "he was the one in charge."
The couple was married in a Hmong ceremony two weeks after they met. When Choa Xiong turned 18, the two families decided they should get a "marriage license."
"The leader of the Xiong clan testified (at trial) that he advised clan members that if they get a marriage license, they are legally married in Minnesota," the court opinion said.
But Choa Xiong testified that in the Hmong language, they do not distinguish between "license" and "certificate" and that her brother said she needed a "marriage paper."
When they filled out the paperwork for the marriage license from Ramsey County, she recalled, a clerk "told them to raise their right hands and sign something."
"Afterwards, Xiong told (her) that they 'were officially married...and that was the end of it.' "
Ramsey County District Court referee Ann Leppanen recommended on April 15, 2010, that the couple be considered married and hence were now divorced.
She said Su Xiong's testimony was "conflicting and self-serving...and should not be given weight."
She noted Su Xiong was a professional tax preparer, and yet he admitted to filing taxes for himself and Choa Xiong as "married" because it saved them money.
"Of course, the foundation of this statement is clear: (Su Xiong) is willing to lie, even to the federal government, if it is in his best financial interest."
Su Xiong's attorney said this week that the Court of Appeals' ruling was flawed.
The putative spouse law is intended to correct errors, such as when a couple is married by a clergyperson who they later find wasn't licensed, Lawrence Crosby said.
"Because otherwise, everybody's going to be in court all the time. Because anyone can say, I thought I was married."
Those who go through the required steps have the right to consider themselves married, Crosby said. "And if you don't go through the required steps, you have no such right at all."
Geffen said the courts see few putative spouse cases in Minnesota.
"We didn't really have a blueprint, because it hadn't really been litigated," he said.
Though the Xiongs' divorce was finalized last year, issues of child custody, parenting time and division of property were put off pending the appellate court ruling.
Emily Gurnon can be reached at 651-228-5522.
Minnesota law says "(a)ny person who has cohabited with another to whom the person is not legally married in the good-faith belief that the person was married to the other is a putative spouse until knowledge of the fact that the person is not legally married terminates the status and prevents acquisition of further rights."
In its decision issued Monday, the state Court of Appeals ruled that whether a person had a good-faith belief that he or she was legally married "is measured subjectively."