Here is one that would make Anna Nicole Smith just a little nervous.  In March of this year, Jack Harris attempted to marry Derrel De Passe, as she (Derrel) was about to die.  On July 7, 2000, Mr. Harris convinced the hospital chaplain at Stanford University Medical Center to marry them, as Ms. De Passe’s health was rapidly deteriorating.  In fact, she did die the next day.

The Court of Appeal in San Francisco ruled that Mr. Harris cannot collect any of Ms. De Passe’s five million dollar estate because they got married without a marriage license.  The Court decided that “the issuance of a license is a mandatory requirement for a valid marriage in California.”  Mr. Harris realized that this might be a problem, and six months after she died, Mr. Harris went to court to obtain an order which would attempt to “validate” his marriage to Derrel De Passe.  When he filed this with the probate court along with his request for his share of the assets of the estate, Derrel De Passe’s brother, John De Passe, the executor of her estate, objected, claiming that the lack of a marriage license invalidated their marriage, and therefore Mr. Harris was entitled to nothing.  The judge hearing the case agreed with John De Passe, finding that a marriage license is a prerequisite to marriage.  

During the appeal, Mr. Harris acknowledged the lack of a license, but claimed that it did not invalidate the marriage, as he argued that his not having obtained a license was what is called in the law a “curable defect,” and that he had cured it by going to court six months after the marriage and having the court “approve” his marriage to Derrel De Passe. 


This attempt did not work.  Mr. Harris was done in by his own words, along with the words of the chaplain who performed the ceremony, as the declarations of each of them established that Mr. Harris was aware of the requirement of a marriage license; however, he wanted to go ahead with the ceremony, due to his belief that Ms. De Passe was getting ready to pass on. 

Is the State Supreme Court the next step?  Mr. Harris’ attorney said he thinks so; however, that is for Mr. Harris to decide.  John De Passe’s attorney hopes this is where it ends, indicating that there are other problems with this alleged marriage as well, including the fact that Derrel De Passe was so close to death that her mental state may have made it impossible for her to give what would be deemed a valid consent to marry Mr. Harris. 

The Court of Appeal also ruled that the chaplain actually violated a provision in the criminal law which requires the chaplain to be given and accept a marriage license before performing the ceremony.  John De Passe’s lawyer also claims that if this case does go to the State Supreme Court, he will further argue that case law in California holds that people are not officially married until the marriage is consummated.  That issue was not one the Court of Appeal needed to get to; however, if this case does go to the next level, we may get to find out whether or not you’re married when the person marrying you tells you you’re married, or whether consummation is a requirement.

Good thing for Anna Nicole that when she decided to wed her 89-year-old spouse to be, she and her lawyers thought far enough ahead to make sure they had a marriage license.  She seems to have thought of everything, didn’t she?


Charlie Unger is a criminal defense attorney in the Glendale law firm of Flanagan, Unger, Danis & Grover, and a psychotherapist at the Foothill Centre for Personal and Family Development.  Mr. Unger writes a bimonthly column on legal and psychological issues.  He can be reached at or at (818) 244-8694