Texas jury rules gay couple had ‘common-law marriage’

Photo: Todd Franson.

Last week, a San Antonio jury returned a verdict in favor of a gay man who sought to prove he had been married since 1996 and was therefore entitled to child support and other marital benefits then even that he and his partner were going their separate ways.

While various judges have ruled that same-sex marriages, or their equivalent, existed prior to the 2015 Supreme Court ruling in Oberfell v. Hodgeswhich has ruled all existing laws banning same-sex marriage in the United States unconstitutional, last week’s ruling marks the first time a jury in Texas has made such a finding regarding a divorce lawsuit.

The plaintiff, Christopher Hoffman, filed for divorce from his former partner, Moises Ortiz, in 2019, claiming that although the two were not legally married, they had been involved in a common-law marriage for more than 20 years. Hoffman’s attorneys claimed the two were married based on how the Texas family code defines common law marriages, while Ortiz’s attorneys argued that no such marital arrangement existed and that he and Hoffman were “merely roommates who acted as partners”.

In a preliminary hearing on July 30, 2019, Bexar County 45th District Court Judge Mary Lou Alvarez found that Ortiz’s claim that he and Hoffman were just roommates was a ” incredulous testimony”, according to In South Africa. As a result, Alvarez issued a temporary order requiring Ortiz — the main earner in the relationship — to pay Hoffman $1,200 a month in interim child support until a jury could determine whether the two had in fact done so. part of a common-law marriage.

Justin Nichols, attorney for Hoffman of the San Antonio-based Nichols Law Firm, said Weekly Metro in an interview that proving a common-law marriage can be difficult, and even many jurors were initially confused as to what constituted a common-law marriage, believing that one had to live together for a set amount of time. But in Texas, there is no minimum or maximum time limit.

“A common law marriage is two people who agree to be married, they live together as spouses, and they present themselves or themselves to others as married,” Nichols noted. “The intent is, and Texas recognizes, that many people, for whatever reason, enter into long-term relationships and consider themselves married, and the protections that marriage formally accompanies should also apply to people who received the piece of paper saying they are married.

At trial, Hoffman’s attorneys presented evidence and testimony that their client and Ortiz wore matching gold rings throughout their relationship, presented themselves as married to friends and family, owned a property together and shared an apartment which was in a San Antonio Express-News article mentioning both of their names.

“For a very long time, we kept talking about the right to marry. And really, the right to marry includes the right to divorce, and we explained that to the jury,” Nichols said. Weekly metro. “For many years, until Oberefell, the way gay people broke up in their relationships was that they just broke up – what’s yours is yours, and what was in my name is mine, and you were out of luck if you weren’t the most powerful or influential partner. But divorce laws across the country, including in Texas, protect partners from this and give the parties the right to have what they’ve built together divided fairly and equitably.

The four-day trial was held in the 285th District Court in Bexar County, with Judge Aaron Haas presiding. The jury ultimately determined, by a vote of 10 to 2, that Hoffman and Ortiz were involved in a common-law marriage, finding that the couple married on February 14, 1996, and that there were grounds for the court grant the divorce.

Nichols says the jury verdict entitles Hoffman to Social Security benefits, based on Ortiz’s much higher salary, long-term spousal benefits through Ortiz’s retirement plan with the Independent School District of San Antonio and spousal support, or alimony, from Ortiz, which is important. as Hoffman has since become disabled and can no longer work.

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Hands of a married gay couple – Photo: Nick Karvounis/Unsplash

With the jury ruling in favor of Hoffman, a judge will now decide how the couple’s assets will be divided and issue a final decree of divorce, which will not be stayed, meaning it would take effect immediately.

Nichols said that while he expects Ortiz’s attorneys to appeal the decision to the San Antonio Court of Appeals, and potentially all the way to the Texas Supreme Court, he doesn’t expect not have the state interfere. While Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has tried to limit the impact of the Oberefell case, he has not yet become involved in the case.

“We anticipate that the state may make a claim or file a brief once the decision is appealed. But he has no binding decision-making power,” Nichols said of Paxton. “He can give his opinion, and he likes to do that. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll decide anything.

Nichols noted that the ruling in Hoffman’s favor could have implications for other same-sex couples across Texas seeking to have their common-law relationships recognized.

“A man and a woman voted against us,” Nichols said of his post-trial conversations with jurors to determine how they voted and what influenced their decision-making.

“Interestingly, there were two people on the panel who said they didn’t believe in same-sex marriage. And both voted for we. The two who didn’t, their main reason was, “Why didn’t they get married formally after [the] Oberefell [Supreme Court decision] went down ? And our response was, “They didn’t have to because they were already married,” Nichols added. “By all accounts they had a wedding, it was just that they could now get a special piece of paper saying so. But for them they didn’t need the piece of paper, because Oberefell did not drastically change their relationship. That’s not what formed a marriage. And that’s why we have common law marriage in Texas.

Nichols also said speaking to the two anti-same-sex marriage jurors who ultimately sided with Hoffman was “one of the most satisfying points in my personal and professional life.”

“I probably gave the best closing argument I’ve ever given in my life,” he said. I was able to demonstrate that through all the ups and downs… the reason [Hoffman and Ortiz] stayed [together] were they meant to stay together for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, sick and healthy, and all of those things apply in this particular case. They stuck it out because they committed to each other, and that’s what we call marriage.

“Both jurors said they never thought of it that way. They both said they were on the fence until the very end, but that description, that explanation, led them to say “What these people had was real.”

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