Politics & Government

Second chance success: same-sex Texas couple’s union becomes common law marriage

A Tarrant County marriage license
A Tarrant County marriage license Star-Telegram

Jim Fritsch wanted to make sure — no matter what — that his partner of more than two decades would receive his retirement benefits if anything were to happen to him.

So, Fritsch, 62, and Bill Parker, 57, headed to the Arlington Sub-Courthouse last week to file a declaration of common law marriage dating back to 1992, when the two Fort Worth men began living together as a married couple.

They were told they could get the declaration of marriage, but they couldn’t put the date of their union before June 26, 2015, the day the Supreme Court swept away bans on same-sex marriage.

So they left.

“I know what the Supreme Court ruled on,” Parker said. “I wasn’t going to stand there and take it.”

Parker and Fritsch didn’t want to put the wrong date on the form for many reasons, including the fact that falsifying information would be a felony, punishable by time in prison.

They talked to their attorney, John Nelson, who was readying to move forward with a lawsuit to ensure they could receive an accurate declaration of common law or “informal” marriage.

Then Tarrant County Clerk Mary Louise Garcia’s office weighed in, stating that they checked back with state officials, who initially said same-sex common law marriages couldn’t be dated before June 26.

This time, the Texas Department of State Health Services “indicated there had been a miscommunication regarding the issue,” the statement read. “Applicants, regardless of gender, may apply for an informal marriage license using any date applicable to their relationship.”

Fritsch and Parker returned to the Arlington Sub-Courthouse Monday, with their paperwork seeking the marriage declaration and a copy of Garcia’s statement.

After an employee reviewed the paperwork, and made a phone call, the two were issued a formal declaration of their marriage.

“It was very much a relief,” Fritsch said. “We finally got what was coming to us.”

“It felt pretty damn good,” Parker added. “But (Monday) was just Round One. Dallas is Round Two.”

In the beginning

This issue arose because Fritsch retired six years ago from working for the city of Dallas.

At the time, Fritsch couldn’t list Parker as his beneficiary because same-sex couple marriages in Texas — traditional or common law — weren’t recognized due to the state’s ban on gay marriage. And the city said Fritsch had to prove he was married when he retired.

Nelson suggested the men file a declaration stating they’ve been in a common law marriage since they’ve been living together since 1992.

A common law marriage in Texas is recognized if an adult couple lives together for a certain amount of time, agrees to marry and tells other people they are a married couple. It can be declared at any time and it is recognized starting on the date when the couple first claimed they were married.

“We’ve been together for 23 years,” Fritsch said. “We have bought houses and vehicles together and we have combined our money almost since Day One.”

Nelson said he didn’t want the couple to perjure themselves by putting a false date on the document to declare their marriage, as suggested by a worker in the county clerk’s office.

The statement from the county clerk’s office said in addition to checking back with the state agency over marriages, they also asked the Tarrant County District Attorney’s office to weigh in on the issue.

“They agree with the position of the Department of State Health Services,” the statement said.

Nelson praised Tarrant County’s DA and Clerk’s office for working to right a wrong once they had updated legal information.

Moving forward

Since the Supreme Court’s ruling in June, an estimated 2,500 same-sex couples have received marriage licenses in Texas, including nearly 300 in Tarrant County.

There is no exact accounting of how many same-sex marriage licenses have been issued in Texas or Tarrant County because gender is no longer listed on licenses.

State officials estimate that around 2,500 licenses were issued across Texas to same-sex couples during the first two months after the Supreme Court ruling. And a Star-Telegram review of marriage licenses issued in Tarrant County shows that at least 296 licenses appear to have been issued to same-sex couples during that time.

These were issued to couples with the first names of Robert and Edward, for instance, or Christa and Wendy, Nicole and Maria, Ricky and Robert, David and Paul.

Now that Fritsch and Parker have been able to document their common law marriage, their last step is moving forward to make sure Parker is listed as Fritch’s beneficiary on his retirement benefits in Dallas.

“I’m very confident,” Fritsch said. “We will present this to the Dallas retirement board and I believe this will happen.”

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley