Marriage Attacked as Bigamous in Dyersburg, TN: Fowlkes v. Fowlkes

Facts: Daughter was born to Mother and Father in Tennessee in 1970. Mother and Father married one month later and moved to Phoenix, Arizona. They later separated, and Mother and Daughter returned to Tennessee.

bigamy in TennesseeFather advised Mother that he obtained a divorce somewhere in Phoenix. Mother filed for child support in Tennessee, and the case was transferred to Arizona. Father was ordered to pay child support by a Maricopa County, Arizona court.

Mother remarried in 1996.

Father returned to Tennessee and married Stepmother in 2001. Father and Stepmother divorced but then remarried in 2013, all while living in Tennessee. When Father died in 2017, he and Stepmother were living together as husband and wife.

Daughter filed for declaratory judgment in which she sought to declare Father’s marriage to Stepmother null and void. She claimed that Father was not legally divorced from Mother at the time of his marriage to Stepmother.

Daughter submitted documentation establishing that a thorough search of “adult records” in Maricopa County, Arizona disclosed no domestic relations cases for Father or Mother and there was no record of any divorce between Father and Mother.

The trial court denied the petition, finding that Daughter failed to establish the invalidity of Father’s marriage to Stepmother. The court found that the search performed in Maricopa County was insufficient when that search failed to even yield evidence of the child-support case.

Daughter appealed.

On AppealThe Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.

Tennessee does not recognize bigamous marriages. A second marriage cannot be created before the dissolution of the first.

There is a presumption of the validity of a marriage. Where there is a second marriage, it is presumed that the first marriage ended in divorce. This presumption may be overcome by evidence that a search of the court records produced no record of the divorce. The search must be performed in the state in which the spouse creating the second marriage resided. The party challenging the marriage must prove the invalidity of the marriage by cogent and convincing evidence.

The Court agreed that Daughter failed to prove her case:

Here, we agree with the trial court that [Daughter] simply failed to submit sufficient evidence to rebut the presumption of the validity of [Father’s] divorce from [Mother] and marriage to [Stepmother]. While [Daughter] submitted evidence of searches performed in Dyer County, Tennessee and Maricopa County, Arizona, the record establishes that [Father] advised both [Mother] and [Stepmother] that he obtained the divorce somewhere in Phoenix. A general search of the surrounding counties was not performed, and the search actually performed did not reveal evidence of the child-support case between the two parties that was transferred to Maricopa County per court documents included in the record.

The denial of Daughter’s petition for declaratory judgment was affirmed.

Fowlkes v. Fowlkes (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Western Section, August 16, 2018).

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K.O. Herston is a family-law attorney in Knoxville, Tennessee whose practice is devoted exclusively to family law, including divorce, child custody, child support, alimony, prenuptial agreements, and other aspects of family law.

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