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Common Law Marriage: A Kansas Supreme Court Case

Couple attached to a chain

Recently the ruling of the case of In the Matter of the Common-Law Marriage of Heidkamp and Ritter, under case number 125,617 was issued. The Kansas Supreme Court was asked to approve or disapprove the determination of common law marriage. It is an interesting case because there is not a significant number of Supreme Court reviewing decisions on common law marriage. In Kansas, the essential elements of common-law marriage are: 1) the capacity of the parties to marry; 2) a present marriage agreement between the parties and 3) a holding out of each other as husband and wife.

When a party asserts the existence of a common law marriage, he or she has the burden of proving that such a marriage exists. In this case, the parties met in 1993 and started dating. While the parties were on a vacation in 1996, Mr. Ritter proposed to Ms. Hiedkamp and gave her an engagement ring. The parties believed, albeit incorrectly, that once they were together for seven years, they were in a common-law marriage. The parties believed that the passage of seven years was sufficient to create this status.

Based on this understanding, on September 8, 2003, the parties agreed they were a married couple and Ms. Heidkamp moved into Mr. Ritter’s residence. Since 2003, the parties lived together and had an exclusive romantic relationship. The parties jointly paid their utilities and bills listed Peggy’s last name as Ritter. The parties obtained joint insurance, made charitable contributions together and began using a joint bank account to provide a stipend to Peggy’s parents. The parties owned real estate jointly, including their marital residence. They each held joint and individual bank accounts. They shared passwords on all retirement and other individual banking accounts. They travelled together and attended one another’s family events and gatherings.

When Mr. Ritter passed away, his death certificate listed him as married and the residence at the time of death was the residence he shared with Peggy. The death certificate listed Peggy as his surviving spouse.

A hearing was held in the district court to confirm the common law marriage. The court concluded that the parties were in a valid common law marriage beginning on September 8, 2003, and through Mr. Ritter’s death.

The case was transferred to the Supreme Court for a certification because the IRS and federal courts are not bound by lower state court decisions but must merely give those decisions proper regard. In re Estate of Keller, 273 Kan. 981, 985 (Kan. 2002). The court went on to hold that common-law marriage establishes a legally cognizable status that does not require a religious or civil ceremony but is created by the mutual consent of the parties.

The Court found that the district court’s determination was supported by substantial competent evidence and the court properly applied the rules. In this case, the court had a large body of evidence and the components of common-law marriage were established.

Do you have a case involving common law marriage in Kansas? If so, please call Pingel Family Law today at (816) 208-8130 to consult with us about your case and the elements necessary to prove the common law marriage, put our knowledgeable and determine attorneys to work for you today!