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A ceremony does not a legal marriage make, says Michigan court

What does it take to make a marriage in Michigan?Apparently, you have to have more than the blessing of your pastor or priest and your personal vows of commitment before God. In specific, you have to have a marriage license -- because marriage is a legal contract that confers specific legal obligations and property rights. A commitment ceremony may be an emotional and spiritual contract -- but it isn't the same thing.

That's the final word from the Michigan Court of Appeals after a woman's ex-husband sued to end his spousal support payments once she entered into a committed relationship with another man -- with a full church ceremony in the presence of her family and friends.

Michigan does not recognize "common law" marriages, which can be created by simply holding out to the public that you're married to your partner, whether you've ever gone through the legal steps. In addition, the terms of the couple's divorce were carefully negotiated, and there doesn't appear to be any provision that ended the spousal support obligation early just because she was living with someone else -- only if she actually married someone.

There was a lot at stake in this case. The ex-husband in this case owes more than $500,000 in $10,000-per-month payments to the ex-wife over the next several years. Married 29 years, the ex-wife agreed to 10 years of spousal support in her 2014 divorce. When she fell in love again a few years later, she wanted to sanctify her new relationship in church.

A lower court said that was enough to end her spousal support, but the Court of Appeals has overturned that ruling. It remains to be seen whether her ex-spouse will try to pursue the case further with another appeal.

Cases like this illustrate the importance of having an experienced attorney negotiate your divorce. It pays to have an attorney on your side who can think ahead to all potential possibilities and plan accordingly.

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