Alabama Supreme Court: Failure to Record Marriage Document Before Death Does Not Invalidate Marriage

In Porter v. Estate of Porter, a December 10, 2021 opinion from the Alabama Supreme Court, the court determined whether the death of a party to a marriage, after a marriage document is executed but before the marriage document is recorded with the probate court, invalidates the marriage for failure to comply with the registration requirements of § 22-9A-17, Ala. Code 1975.

The Facts of Porter v. Estate of Porter

In 2011, Sean Porter executed a will naming Ilka Porter (his wife at the time) as executrix, and naming Ilka and their daughter, Lina, as beneficiaries.

Section 22-9A-17, which sets forth the requirements for registering a marriage in Alabama, became effective on August 29, 2019.  On October 10, 2019, Sean and Ilka were divorced.  On August 14, 2020 Sean had a second child through his relationship with Alexis Campbell Porter.  On September 26, 2020, Sean and Alexis executed a marriage certificate before a notary public.  On October 19, 2020, Sean died unexpectedly.  On October 20, 2020, the previously executed marriage certificate was recorded with the Alabama probate court.

Ilka filed a petition to have letters testamentary issued to her.  Alexis filed her own petition, as Sean’s surviving spouse.  Ilka moved for summary judgment and asked the Alabama probate court to find that Sean’s death had abated the marriage process and that Alexis was not a surviving spouse entitled to serve as the administratrix of or to inherit from Sean’s estate.  Alexis moved the probate court to confirm her marriage to Sean, i.e., to confirm that the registration requirements under Alabama law had been complied with and that Sean’s death was immaterial to the validity of their marriage.

The Alabama probate court issued an order finding that the marriage between Sean and Alexis was not abated by the intervening death between execution of the marriage certificate and the filing of same, and that Alexis, as Sean’s surviving spouse, had priority to serve as administratrix of his estate pursuant to § 43-2-42(a)(1), Ala. Code 1975.

Registering a Marriage In Alabama

Section 22-9A-17 sets forth the requirements for registering a marriage in Alabama and states:

(a) Two persons desiring to unite in marriage may do so by submitting the affidavits, forms, and data specified in Section 30-1-5 and Section 30-1-9.1 for recording with the office of the judge of probate. The recording of the affidavits, forms, and data establishes legal recognition of the marriage as of the date the affidavits and forms were properly signed by the two parties so long as the documentation was provided to the probate office within 30 days of the signatures of the parties. Each marriage filed with the probate office shall be filed and registered with the Office of Vital Statistics.

Section 30-1-9.1, referenced in § 22-9A-17, provides that:

A marriage conforming to the requirements of this section shall be valid on the date the marriage is executed by both parties, provided the affidavits, forms, and data are recorded in the office of the judge of probate within 30 days of the date of the last party’s signature in accordance with Section 22-9A-17.

The Alabama Supreme Court noted that neither statute mentions the effect of the death of a party on the registration process or a duly executed marriage.  Therefore, the Alabama Supreme Court concluded that the statutory text does not support a conclusion that the legislature intended for the death of a party to a marriage that occurs after the execution of the marriage but before recordation of the marriage documents to have any legal effect on the validity of that marriage.

Here, the marriage documents of Sean and Alexis were submitted to the Alabama probate court for recording 24 days after the parties signed the documents.  Therefore the marriage between Sean and Alexis was entitled to legal recognition.

Death Does Not Abate the Marriage Registration Process In Alabama

In response to Ilka’s argument that Sean’s death foreclosed a valid marriage, the Alabama Supreme Court focused on the role of the probate court in marriage registrations:

Indeed, according to the title of Act No. 2019-340, which amended § 22-9A-17, the stated purposes of the act include “abolish[ing] the requirement that a marriage license be issued by the judge of probate” and “provid[ing] that the judge of probate would record each marriage presented to the probate court for recording,” effectively limiting the probate court’s role in the marriage process to that of record keeper. In fact, § 22-9A-17, when read in conjunction with § 30-1-9.1, affords the probate court seemingly no discretionary authority with respect to recording otherwise compliant marriage documents submitted to the probate office within the designated period. See § 22-9A-17 (“The office of the judge of probate shall record … each marriage presented to the probate office for filing so long as the affidavits, forms, and data are submitted as required.” (emphasis added)); § 30-1-9.1(c) (“A marriage conforming to the requirements of this section shall be valid on the date the marriage is executed by both parties, provided the affidavits, forms, and data are recorded in the office of the judge of probate within 30 days of the date of the last party’s signature …. ” (emphasis added)).

Sean’s death, therefore, did not abate the marriage-registration process.

In conclusion, the Alabama Supreme Court stated:

Applying the plain language of § 22-9A-17, we conclude that the legislature did not intend for the death of a party to a marriage that occurs after a marriage document is executed but before the marriage document is recorded to void a marriage for failure to comply with § 22-9A-17. We further hold that there is no basis in existing law for overriding the plain meaning of § 22-9A-17. Accordingly, the probate court did not err in recognizing Sean’s marriage to Alexis as valid, and we affirm the probate court’s order.

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