A recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit demonstrates once again the importance of divorcing your first spouse before you marry your second. Upholding a lower court decision, the appeals court rejected a purported widow’s claim for surviving spouse benefits under the NFL Player Retirement Plan because her husband was still legally married to his first wife at the time of his death.
Thomas Sullivan played in the National Football League from 1972 to 1978. In 1979, he married Lavona Hill. Although the couple separated sometime in the 1980s, they were never divorced. Nevertheless, Sullivan married again in 1986, and he and his second wife, Barbara, lived together as husband and wife until Sullivan died in 2002. Barbara filed for benefits under the NFL’s retirement plan as Sullivan’s surviving spouse, and the plan began to pay benefits to her in 2002. Four years later, Sullivan’s first wife also requested surviving spouse benefits, eventually filing suit against the plan.
Finding Sullivan’s second marriage void under South Carolina law, the district court held that his first wife was entitled to the benefits. Barbara appealed the decision, arguing that her marriage to Sullivan was valid under an exception to South Carolina bigamy law. South Carolina law provides that a second marriage is void if one of the spouses has a living prior husband or wife, unless the prior husband or wife is absent for at least five years and the spouse did not know whether he or she was still living during that time. Despite Barbara’s argument that Sullivan and his wife separated more than five years before she met Sullivan, the appeals court agreed with the lower court that the second marriage did not meet the exception to South Carolina’s prohibition on bigamy. Under the bigamy law, a presumption of death may arise after five years, but only if evidence is introduced that “diligent search and inquiry have been made.” In addition to questions about the last date of contact between the two, no evidence was introduced that Sullivan searched or inquired as to his first wife’s whereabouts. As a result, Barbara’s marriage was found to be void under South Carolina law. Finally, Barbara’s alternative argument that her rights were protected under the “putative spouse doctrine” was precluded by the South Carolina Supreme Court’s rejection of the doctrine. Acknowledging “the obvious equities in favor of Barbara as the apparent wife” for the last 16 years of Sullivan’s life, the court nevertheless upheld the first wife’s entitlement to surviving spouse benefits as the legal surviving spouse under South Carolina law. Hill v. Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Ret. Plan (3d. Cir. 2013)