Here’s a true big love story.
Richard L. Kunz marries Janice. Years later, they decide to practice polygamy. Richard and Janice divorce so he can legally marry Rachel. The three live as husband and wives until Rachel dies.
Then Richard takes a new plural wife, Lillie Spencer, but doesn’t marry her legally.
Along comes Lynne, a British citizen who needs to marry to stay in the country. Richard secretly weds Lynne as a favor to her real polygamous husband, Andrew Williams, who is already legally married.
Richard dies in 2003, and Janice discovers his marriage to Lynne, who never lived with Richard but is now Richard’s legal widow.
That’s the tangled web a domestic commissioner, a 3rd District Court judge and now the Utah Court of Appeals have had to sort out.
The appeals court on Thursday affirmed two earlier decisions that recognized Lynne’s marriage as legal and again rejected Janice’s attempt to prove a common-law marriage to Richard.
“This case presents the difficult and complicated issues that arise when followers of the doctrine of plural marriage attempt to circumvent Utah law,” the court said. “We do not condone the marital machinations practiced here by any of the parties.”
Janice “may have been a true wife” to Richard, and Lynne’s marriage an “immigration-motivated sham,” but a valid marriage certificate trumps all other claims, the appeals court ruled.
And Janice failed to bring her challenge of Lynne’s marriage in a timely manner – that is, while Richard was still alive. “Therefore, Janice cannot attack it now,” the court said.
The case has bearing on death benefits as well as a related dispute over a property trust Richard left behind. More broadly, it highlights how property rights can be a problem in plural marriages – something with an easy fix, according to one civil rights lawyer.
“It brings up the problem of how do you divide property in a polygamous situation,” said Brian Barnard. “The answer is, if Utah were to decriminalize or legalize polygamy, then the Legislature would say this is how property is going to be divided.”
The twists and turns of this story begin in 1953, when Richard married Janice. The couple divorced in 1961 after deciding to practice plural marriage. That same year, Richard married Rachel, a union that ended in 1994 when Rachel died. Five years later, Richard took Lillie as a plural, but not legal, wife.
Over the course of those 50 years, Richard and Janice lived as a couple. They had two children, held joint property and acted in every way as married, Janice maintains.
But Richard apparently kept secrets. Nine months after his death in 2003, Janice filed a petition seeking to have her relationship with him recognized as a common-law marriage.
That is when she discovered that, in 1999, Richard had legally married Lynne. That marriage, Janice said, “was done in utter secrecy” – though Lillie admitted later she witnessed it.
Janice maintains Richard never lived with Lynne. She also claims the “sham marriage” was designed to circumvent immigration laws, which should invalidate it. She argues, too, that her long-standing relationship with Richard is another reason to nullify Lynne’s marriage.
Both Lillie and Lynne objected to Janice’s petition, including her characterization of Lynne’s relationship with Richard. They also say Janice failed to raise her common-law marriage claim in a timely manner – that is, within a year of Richard’s marriage to Lynne.
The “she saids” and “she saids” of the case never got a full airing in court because the domestic commissioner and 3rd District Judge Sandra N. Peuler found Lynne’s marriage to Richard was valid. End of story.
But the appeals court delved deeper into the matter, turning to one celebrated polygamy ruling – the Utah Supreme Court decision in the Tom Green case – to make its argument. In that bigamy case, Green also habitually married and divorced women as he added plural wives. But he and his first wife were found to have a common-law marriage because he was not legally married to another woman, thus setting the stage for bigamy charges.
In Janice’s case, however, a valid marriage existed: that between Richard and Lynne, the court said.
One Salt Lake City attorney found that conclusion to be “conceptually inconsistent.”
“In the Tom Green case, there were multiple women involved and the court imposed a common-law marriage on one relationship and invalidated all the others,” said Rod Parker, who has represented polygamists in the past. “Here you have a long-standing relationship equivalent to the one Tom had but they give no weight to that relationship.”
The appellate judges – Carolyn B. McHugh, Judith Billings and James Davis – said the case presented the first chance for a Utah appellate court to address the validity of “immigration-motivated” marriages, which have been found void in other jurisdictions.
But Utah law does not include sham immigration marriages among the types that are void – an intentional omission by the Legislature, according to the ruling.
“Because the Utah Legislature did not include immigration-motivated marriages among those deemed void, we hold that such marriages are . . . valid until nullified,” the court said.