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Defining marriage left and right: Salt Lake City attorney faces a different side of the equation

The state of Utah is currently in the throes of defining what constitutes a marriage. On which side will polygamy or same-sex partnerships fall after all is said and done is not clear, but one Salt Lake City attorney is fighting for a different kind of marriage: a common law marriage, according to this local news outlet’s online article.

Common law marriages are only recognized in nine states: Alabama, Colorado, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Iowa, Montana, Texas, and, you guessed it, Utah. The requirements for a contractual common law marriage vary from state to state, and one Utah couple is coming up hard against the state’s definition of their relationship. Rick Stuart and Tara Vandersteen have lived together “as man and wife” for fourteen years, and up until recently, enjoyed all the benefits of having a marriage license, even though they lack one. Married under “common law,” the couple and their children filed tax returns as one family and shared Rick’s health insurance until 2011. As a correctional officer for the state of Utah, Rick received health insurance coverage through the Public Employee Health Program, and his family was also covered from 2003 until 2011, when PEHP declared that they would be dropping Tara and four of her children from a previous marriage because Rick and Tara are not “really married.”

In Utah, common law marriages consist of living together and assuming the marital rights, duties and obligations within a relationship. Utah requires one more step than other states, too: a court or administrative order validating the common law relationship. When PEHP dropped half their family’s coverage, Rick and Tara’s Salt Lake City attorney encouraged them to get the court order declaration to finalize their common law marriage and enter compliance with the PEHP requirements.

With the help of their Salt Lake City attorney, Rick and Tara were declared married since August 31, 2000 by a Utah judge. Yet PEHP wasn’t satisfied, and cited the date that the judge signed the order, November 26, 2012, to be the actual date that Rick and Tara were married. The rub in their case is that in 2013, Tara was diagnosed with cancer while the decision to appeal the insurance coverage drop was still pending with the Utah Retirement System (which oversees PEHP).

But that’s not all—Rick and Tara’s Salt Lake City attorney is now having to represent them in the face of a complaint filed with the Utah’s Attorney General’s office accusing the couple of felony insurance fraud. While Tara and Rick contend that their marriage was legal and that their insurance was validly obtained, the AG sees it differently, alleging that Rick and Tara claimed to have a marriage certificate. The AG’s lawsuit also confirms that PEHP has chosen to flatly ignore the judge’s declaration of their legal marriage date beginning in 2000. The couple is fighting now on two fronts—one to get the insurance they believe they have a right to, and one to defend that right in a court of law. This is the decade for marriage definition, to be sure.

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