Utah Now Recognizes Same-Sex Common-Law Marriage After Landmark Decision

For Christmas, Nicki Bidlack received the best present she could ever hope for: a piece of paper designating her, along with the late Sara Clow, as the mother and legal guardian of her two-year old son.

Bidlack, a resident of Ogden, Utah, was in tears after receiving the amended birth certificate, saying it’s what Clow would have wanted. She had apparently wanted her son to bear not just her last name, but that of Bidlack’s as well.

Clow had died from injuries sustained after a severe motor accident on the night of September 13, 2014, on Interstate 15 near Willard.

Groundbreaking Court Ruling

On December 4, 2015, 2nd District Judge Ernest Jones issued a ruling that recognized the couple’s 8-year relationship as a common-law marriage, thereby making her the stepmother of Bidlack’s 2-year-old son. According to lawyer, Christopher Wharton, the decision is believed to be the first of its kind for gay couples in Utah.

The ruling now enables Bidlack to get the benefits for the son she is now raising on her own. Because Bidlack and Clow had never married, —they could legally only do so after the Supreme Court ruling in 2013 recognizing same-sex marriage in the United States—, when she passed away, her partner and child could not access her death benefits and estate, even if Clow was the biological mother of her son.

Bidlack expressed frustration over how their son had been denied benefits any other child would have automatically received.

Finding Legal Assistance

This problem prompted her to consult the services of Christopher Wharton, a family lawyer based in Utah and a longtime advocate of gay rights, who had enough reason to believe that Bladick’s situation could be connected with the denial of a 14th Amendment right.

Fortunately, both the law and timing were on their side. Utah is one of only eight states in the U.S. to recognize common-law marriages, defined as unions between individuals who have yet to obtain a marriage license or seek marriage rites through some kind of ceremony. At the time, however, the common-law provision, like all of Utah’s other marriage statutes, applied only to relationships between men and women.

That all changed after a historical 2013 Federal Court decision, which found state laws prohibiting gay marriage were unconstitutional. Wharton correctly believed the decision would also apply to common-law unions. A 2014 Utah Supreme Court ruling would further bolster his claim, as it stated that common-law status could be granted posthumously after a claim was raised within a year.

In February 2015, Wharton filed a petition asking the state to recognize Bidlack and Clow’s common-law marriage, basing his claim on mutual dependency, cohabitation, and the couple’s treatment of each other as lawfully wedded spouse.

Judge Ernest Jones’ favorable ruling comes at a time when Utah’s LGBT community continues to fight for respect and recognition.

Learn more about your rights as a common law spouse and couple by consulting the Lyttle Law Firm. Visit our website or call our office at 512-215-5225 to schedule a consult.