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The Love Boat: Arkansas Even Recognizes River Boat Marriages that Take Place in Other States

Sometimes a marriage license is not “just a piece of paper” and can be quite significant. In the recent case of Stovall v. Preston, 2018 Ark. App. 64, the Arkansas Court of Appeals upheld the validity of the marriage of a couple that were married more than twenty-seven years earlier by a boat captain in Louisiana. This occurred despite the fact that the marriage did not satisfy the technical requirements of Arkansas’s marriage comity law. Even with the apparent legal deficiencies, the Arkansas Court of Appeals declared the marriage to be valid in Arkansas because the couple had a copy of the Marriage License that was issued by the State of Louisiana.

Most states, including Arkansas, have statutes that determine the validity of marriages that occurred outside of the boundaries of the state. These laws are intended to extend comity (legal recognition) to foreign marriages, so as to avoid situations in which a person would be considered legally married in one state, but classified as unmarried in another state. Arkansas’s statute addressing this issue, allows for recognition of marriages “contracted outside of this state that would be valid by the laws of the state or country in which the marriages were consummated and in which the parties then actually resided . . .” Ark. Code Ann. §9-11-107 (a). This protection was previously restricted by Ark. Code Ann. §9-11-107 (b) to only allow for comity with respect to marriages between opposite sex couples, but that portion of the statute was later held to be unconstitutional. As a result, under the language of the statute, marriages between any couples married in accordance with the laws of other states would be recognized in Arkansas so long as the individuals consummated the marriage in the state in which the marriage was originally contracted and “actually resided” in that state.

In Stovall, the son of an 83-year-old woman challenged the validity of his mother’s twenty-seven-year marriage as part of a guardianship proceeding. His mother and her husband had been married by a boat captain in Louisiana. Although the couple had obtained a valid Louisiana Marriage License, they had not “actually resided” in Louisiana in the manner described in Ark. Code Ann. §9-11-107 (a). In addition, the son alleged that there was no evidence that the couple consummated the marriage following the marriage ceremony. The son argued that his mother and step-father’s undisputed failure to reside in Louisiana rendered their marriage invalid.

Evaluating the merits of this claim, the Arkansas Court of Appeals acknowledged the “longstanding presumption that a marriage entered in due form is valid, and the burden of proving a marriage is invalid is upon the party attacking its validity.” The Arkansas Court of Appeals also noted that past Arkansas cases had treated marriage license statutes as “directory, not mandatory.” Based upon those presumptions of interpretation, the Arkansas Court of Appeals determined that it would uphold the purpose of Ark. Code Ann. §9-11-107, which “is to recognize as valid marriages contracted outside of Arkansas that would be valid by the laws of the state or country in which the marriages were consummated.” Although the Arkansas statute required residency in Louisiana, the Arkansas Court of Appeals held that the Louisiana Marriage License was sufficient to prove a valid marriage was contracted in accordance with Louisiana law and would thus be recognized in Arkansas. Apparently, love conquers all!

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