The DC Court of Appeals in Spellman v. Kelly, decided in July 2016, while addressing personal jurisdiction validated in essence validity of a common law marriage claim.
Factually, Mr. Spellman and Mr. Kelly, who both lived in the District, met in 1988 and began dating. On or about 1998, the two decided to live together and to hold themselves out as partners.
Kelly also owned a home in Delaware, where he and Spellman stayed on the weekends and over the holidays. After Kelly retired in 2006, he began spending more of his time at his Delaware home although continued consulting work in the District for several years, travel to the District and spent time with Spellman.
Kelly and Spellman co-hosted social events in the District, sent joint holiday cards from Spellman’s DC address, attended book clubs, the opera, and the theater together in the District.
Kelly passed away in 2012 and as Spellman filed for spousal allowance in DC in 2013 as well as recognition of common law marriage of 1998. Kelly’s estate objected on grounds that there was no documentation of a marriage between parties that would be recognized under Delaware and furthermore DC courts had no personal jurisdiction over Kelly. The trial court ruled for Kelly and Spellman appealed.
The Court of Appeals in short held that the Superior Court has personal jurisdiction over Kelly and because of all those remaining contacts with the district.
Generally, personal jurisdiction exists with respect to claims arising from a person’s marital relationship in the District of Columbia and if there is any basis consistent with the United States Constitution for the exercise of personal jurisdiction.
The court concluded that Kelly had sufficient minimum contacts with the District, so that exercising personal jurisdiction over him would not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.
While living in Delaware, Kelly had maintained substantial contacts with the District:
- Kelly owned a home in the District with Spellman.
- From 1998 to 2006, Spellman and Mr. Kelly shared a residence in the District and held themselves out as partners.
- Mr. Kelly lived and worked in the District until 2006.
- When he retired, Kelly and Spellman continued to co-host social events in the District.
- They sent joint holiday cards from Mr. Spellman’s address in the District, and attend events together in the District.
Moreover, the court held that it is both fair and just that the question whether a marriage arose under the laws of the District based on the parties’ conduct and while living together should be adjudicated in the District.
The Court also held that same sex common law marriage doctrine is applicable here even though same-sex marriage was not statutorily recognized in the District until 2010.
Although the Court did not address the specifics of the common law marriage claim, the language and dicta suggested that the Court did not see as impediment claim of common law marriage predating 2010 and when the District adopted the same sex marriage statute.
On the personal jurisdiction issues, the court held that the Constitution would permit the Superior Court to exercise personal jurisdiction over Kelly due to extensive minimum contacts that still existed with the District.
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