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Luis v. Gaugler

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 11, 2018

Angela Luis
Kevin Gaugler.

          Providence County Family Court, No. P13-1615, Associate Justice Patricia K. Asquith.

          For Plaintiff: Richard A. Boren, Esq. Jane F. Howlett, Esq.

          For Defendant: Cristine L. McBurney, Esq.

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.


          Gilbert V. Indeglia Associate Justice.

         The defendant, Kevin Gaugler (Kevin), appeals from a Providence County Family Court judgment granting the request of the plaintiff, Angela Luis (Angela), for a divorce.[1] Angela alleged that she and Kevin, although not formally wed, were married at common law based on their intentions and conduct over the course of their twenty-three-year relationship. This matter came before the Supreme Court on April 4, 2018, sitting at Lincoln High School, for oral argument pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised should not be summarily decided. After considering the arguments set forth in the parties' memoranda and at oral argument, we are convinced that cause has not been shown. Thus, further argument or briefing is not required to decide this matter. For the reasons set forth, we vacate the judgment of the Family Court and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.


         Facts and Travel

         This appeal stems from the demise of Angela and Kevin's relationship, which culminated on July 9, 2013 when Angela filed for divorce. Having never had a wedding ceremony or obtained a marriage certificate, Angela and Kevin were never formally married. Angela claims, however, that their marriage had been one at common law.

         Angela and Kevin lived together from May 1990 until June 2013, along with Angela's now-adult son, Zach. Although Zach is not Kevin's biological son, Kevin raised Zach from infancy as though he were his own son. Still, Kevin and Angela's relationship imploded in May 2013, when Angela saw Kevin kiss another woman. On the heels of this indiscretion, Angela ordered Kevin to vacate their shared abode. Angela filed a complaint for divorce in July. In that complaint, she asserted that she and Kevin had been married at common law since September 6, 1995, pinpointing that date as the one when she and Kevin decided to represent that they were husband and wife because Zach was beginning kindergarten.

         On August 16, 2013, Kevin filed a motion to dismiss Angela's complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) of the Family Court Rules of Procedure for Domestic Relations, asserting that he and Angela were never married.[2] However, the trial justice reserved her ruling on that motion.[3] The trial began on January 29, 2014, and continued until March 31, 2015.[4] In all, the trial spanned eleven days, during which numerous witnesses testified, including both Kevin and Angela.[5] On March 22, 2016, the trial justice issued a decision wherein she denied Kevin's motion to dismiss, granted Angela's request for a divorce, and divided the relevant property largely equally between the parties.[6] In the decision, the trial justice made 142 findings of fact, the majority of which supported her determination that there was clear and convincing evidence that Angela and Kevin were married at common law.


         Angela's Testimony

         At trial, Angela testified on her own behalf. She recalled that, beginning in May 1990, she and Kevin lived together as boyfriend and girlfriend until Kevin proposed to her in December 1991. In September 1995, Zach began kindergarten, and, according to Angela, she and Kevin agreed to "commit[] as husband and wife out in public * * *." Angela explained that Zach has since referred to Kevin as "Dad." She testified that she also began introducing Kevin as her husband at Zach's school in September 1995, including filling out forms listing Kevin as Zach's father and as her husband.

         Angela continued that, in September 1998, she and Kevin decided to purchase their shared home, but she chose not to be on the deed or the mortgage to preserve her credit rating. Kevin paid the mortgage, taxes, insurance, and utilities, while she paid for the groceries and Zach's expenses. She also testified that, prior to September 1995, Kevin began wearing a wedding ring on his left hand. She said that Kevin's family referred to her as "sister-in-law" or "daughter-in-law, " Kevin's parents sent her a birthday card calling her their "favorite daughter-in-law, " and Kevin introduced her as his wife at youth football. Angela also said that, in June 1998, Kevin began providing health insurance for Angela and Zach, dubbing Angela his "common law spouse." Moreover, in 2001, Kevin named her as the sole beneficiary and heir in his will and, in 2003, the sole beneficiary on his life insurance plan. However, Kevin's will did not name her as his wife. Kevin also designated Angela as the primary beneficiary of his 401(k) plan in December 2000 and again in February 2001, listing her as his "fiancée" each time.

         Angela explained that, from 1990 until 2013, with the exception of 2008 and 2009, Kevin helped her prepare and file her tax returns. She stated that she always filed her taxes as "single" or "head of household, " and that she and Kevin never filed joint tax returns. Kevin also never claimed Zach on his taxes. Angela further testified that, in 2008, she filled out a FAFSA[7] form seeking financial aid for Zach's college tuition, listing herself as "single"; she stated that she characterized herself as such because she and Kevin agreed that it would maximize Zach's potential financial aid.

         Angela continued that she and Kevin had a joint bank account from 1995 until 1998, to which Kevin made contributions, but that since 1998 they had not shared a bank account. She also stated that she never used Kevin's last name and, when she went back to work in September 2012, she indicated that she was "single" on relevant personnel forms. However, in October 2011, Angela represented herself as "married" on a dentist office questionnaire.

         Angela further testified that she, Kevin, and Zach took family vacations, during which she and Kevin (and sometimes Zach) would share a bedroom. When not on vacation, she and Kevin shared a bedroom, but Kevin would sleep in the basement on weekends and on nights when he had been drinking.

         Angela attested that, in 2000 and again in 2012, she confronted Kevin with allegations that he may have been unfaithful in their relationship, but she ultimately believed him when he denied her accusations. Then, on May 9, 2013, she saw him kiss another woman and confronted him; Kevin admitted that he was involved with the other woman and, in turn, Angela "threw [him] out" on June 7, 2013. Kevin moved into his girlfriend's home. Angela testified that, thereafter, she messaged Kevin saying "you gave me the engagement ring. Yes, we were to get married and things happened[.]"


         Kevin's Testimony

         Kevin also testified at trial. He echoed Angela's testimony that they lived together from May 1990 until June 2013, and that he had a father-son relationship with Zach. He further testified that in December 1991, he gave Angela an engagement ring and asked her to marry him, and that she agreed. Kevin stated that, although he agreed to conduct himself and represent himself as Zach's father, he did not consent to be Angela's husband, and he further said that he never referred to Angela as his wife.

         According to Kevin, he bought himself a ring on a 1993 business trip and wore it on his left hand "on and off" until 2013. However, he said that he did not intend the ring to signify marriage, and instead wore it on his left hand because he is right-handed. Kevin said that, while he did plan to marry Angela at some point in the future, he never considered himself married to her.

         In 1995, 1996, and 1997, Kevin received "single" heath care coverage, but he designated Angela as his common-law spouse on his health insurance plan when she stopped working in 1998; Kevin maintained that he did so to ensure that Zach received health care coverage. In 2000, he listed Angela as the sole beneficiary of his 401(k) plan, characterizing her as his fiancée. Then, in 2003, he listed Angela as the primary beneficiary on his life insurance policy, characterizing her as his "wife." He stated that he did so only because the human resources department at work told him that his life insurance policy needed to match his health care policy. Further, Kevin admitted that he knew he was lying when he listed Angela as his spouse on his health insurance for fifteen years. In addition, Kevin represented that he consistently listed his marital status as "single" for his pay status at work.

         Kevin indicated that he purchased his and Angela's shared home in September 1998 and that Angela did not contribute to the purchase price, nor was she listed on the deed or the mortgage. Angela was present at the closing of the home and was shown the mortgage deed by the closing attorney, which stated that the grantee was "Kevin Gaugler, an unmarried man." Kevin paid all the bills associated with the home, while Angela paid only for the groceries. Further, he testified that the two had not shared a bedroom since 2008.

         Kevin stated that he did not help Angela prepare her taxes from 1995 to 2010, but that he did in 2010, 2011, and 2012. According to Kevin, when he helped prepare Angela's taxes, he included her representation that she was "head of household" only because that was the designation that Angela had used in previous years. Kevin also filed as "single" from 1995 until he purchased their home. Moreover, Kevin testified that he went with Angela to prepare Zach's FAFSA application, and there Angela told him to say that he was just her friend. He also said that he later paid the balance on Zach's college tuition.

         Kevin alleged that, from 1990 until 2008, Angela cooked, cleaned, and did laundry for him, but she stopped in 2008 when she quit her job. He also testified that he and Angela had no joint credit cards and never jointly owned a motor vehicle; he added that he never paid the taxes on Angela's vehicles, but he did pay off her vehicle loan. He submitted that Angela similarly did not pay the taxes on his vehicles.


         Testimony of Family, Friends, and Acquaintances

         Various other persons testified during trial as well. First, Lynn A. Poissant, an acquaintance of Kevin, testified that she believed that Kevin and Angela were married, addressing a December 2012 holiday card to "Mr. and Mrs. Kevin Gaugler and Son."

         Next, Darlene Gaugler, Kevin's sister, testified that Kevin updated his will in May 2005, removing Angela as the beneficiary, and she further testified that Kevin specifically told her that he and Angela were not getting married. Darlene had also testified that, although Angela was listed as Kevin's spouse in their mother's 2008 obituary, Darlene had told the funeral director that Angela was ...

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