Duo didn't wed, but they did divorce
Utah ruling applies to couple who split 37 years after 'marriage'
SALT LAKE CITY A Utah Supreme Court ruling issued Friday could open a door to recognition of gay marriage, polygamy and underage marriage in Utah, an attorney says.

Denver Snuffer believes the ruling about a divorce decree will have wide-ranging and unintended implications for the concept of marriage. But his opponent, attorney Rosemond Blakelock, whose client won under the ruling, says such a belief is poppycock.

She said the high court's decision will apply only in a very narrow fashion to one Utah couple and perhaps a few others who are in the same situation, but she predicts this ruling will not produce the "wild things" that Snuffer fears and will not influence unions that do not already exist under state law.

The Utah Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, ruled that a 4th District judge who issued a divorce decree to Neldon and Ina Johnson in 2001 did have the authority to do that.

The Johnsons had lived together for 37 years, had children and represented to the outside world that they were a married couple even though they were never legally married.

The couple set out to be wed in 1964, but car trouble prevented them from going through with an Arizona ceremony. They came home days later and told friends and family they indeed had gotten married. The couple even had their "marriage" sealed in the LDS Manti Temple one year after their supposed wedding date.

Ina Johnson sought a divorce and both sides agreed in 2001 on a $2.8 million property settlement under which Neldon Johnson would pay Ina Johnson $8,333 per month. However, since then Neldon Johnson has not paid alimony and has filed repeated challenges to the divorce decree, which all have been denied, according to the high court's ruling.

As Ina Johnson tried to obtain alimony, Neldon Johnson insisted the divorce between them was not valid because the couple were never legally married. He filed a motion to vacate the amended divorce decree, arguing that the divorce decision was outside the court's jurisdiction.

That motion was denied by a district court and Neldon Johnson then appealed that decision.

"We hold that the original district court that issued the Johnsons' 2001 divorce decree did not lack subject matter jurisdiction and thus Mr. Johnson cannot collaterally attack it," the Supreme Court wrote, adding that it affirmed the district court's denials of Neldon Johnson's motion to vacate the divorce decree.

Snuffer insists the ruling will give power to state courts to make decisions regarding other types of marriages that might come before those courts, including unions that currently are illegal in Utah.

"This is a terribly important precedent," Snuffer said. "The extent of its mischief will only be determined by the imagination of lawyers, and lawyers can be very creative when the court strikes down something as fundamentally important as this."

Snuffer said a better way to handle this case would be to recognize a "partnership" between Neldon and Ina Johnson, then have a court dissolve the partnership and divide the assets the two had accumulated.

"This has such profound implications for not only Utah but all the states. We have recommended to our client that it be appealed to the United States Supreme Court. I don't know if he will do that," Snuffer said.

The Johnsons thought they had a common-law marriage, but they were mistaken and never took the necessary steps to get legal recognition for common-law marital status. In some states, there are common-law statutes that automatically confer such standing on couples without those people having to do anything to get their union recognized.

"Utah was never a common-law state," Snuffer said.

In recent years, Utah has adopted a law regarding common-law marriages, but the status is not "self-executing" and a couple must fulfill certain requirements to make it valid, he said.

Blakelock disagrees entirely.

Such peripheral issues as common-law marriage are not part of what was before the Utah Supreme Court, she said.

"The issue came out of a divorce that had already been granted and then Mr. Johnson moved to set it aside and he said the court did not have jurisdiction," Blakelock said. "In order for Mr. Snuffer's argument to be correct, he's presupposing that same-sex people would try to go to court and get divorced and they could not."

She said Snuffer's argument "na?ely misconstrues" what the high court was addressing, which was whether or not the district court had subject matter jurisdiction in the Johnson case.

"This is a narrow decision. It just examines what happened in this case with these facts," she said. "They (the justices) are going back over past years where there has been litigation and said, 'Here's clarification of our past rulings.' "

In the Johnsons' case, they were people who were eligible to be married and also eligible to get divorced.

"In Utah, two women can't get married, so it can't apply to divorces. You couldn't use this case to justify asking a court to divorce them," she said.

"It's fantasy to think that all those other things (Snuffer suggested) are going to happen," Blakelock said. "If I went up today and tried to file a divorce case between two men or two women, it would be dismissed out of hand, because that would presuppose that some type of legally permitted marriage had occurred."

e-mail: lindat@desnews.com
Originally published Friday, May 7, 2010