Mission impossible: Finding out if someone is married
Suppose, just as a precaution, you want to make sure your new romantic interest isn’t already married. Verifying someone’s marital status can be summarized in two words: mission impossible.
If your beau wants to hide a marriage, all he or she has to do is not tell you about it. Unless you know exactly where to look—which state, which county courthouse, which year—it is extremely difficult to find out if someone is married.
Every state has different rules for marriage records
In the United States, legal authority for registering vital records—births, deaths, marriages and divorces—resides individually with the states. Each state has its own procedures for registering marriages and divorces. And each state has its own regulations for releasing marriage information. For example:
• In Nevada, Florida and Texas, marriage and divorce records may be searched over the Internet through a company called KnowX.
• In Ohio, marriage and divorce records are located in the probate courts of each county. The Ohio Department of Health maintains statewide marriage abstracts, which indicate that someone applied for a marriage license, although not whether he or she actually got married. If you know the names of the bride and groom, you may submit a written request to search the abstract. It cannot be searched without both names.
• In Pennsylvania, marriage records are maintained by each county’s Orphans’ Court, which sets its own procedures for requesting records. Divorce records are kept by the prothonotary—the elected custodian of county court records.
• In Kansas, marriage records are not public information.
• In California, there are two types of marriage licenses: public and confidential. All marriage records are maintained by the counties, and records for public marriages may be searched.
Although confidential marriages seem tailor-made for privacy-seeking celebrities, they have actually been legal in California since the mid-1800s. The original purpose was to allow couples who had been living together to legitimize their relationship, especially after children came along, without an embarrassing admission to the community that they were not already married.
With a confidential marriage license, no witnesses are required at the ceremony, only the marriage officiant. Confidential marriages are not public record. A copy of the marriage record will only be given to the bride, groom or someone with a court order.
No central database of marriage records
America has 50 states and 3,141 counties. In some jurisdictions marriage records are open for public inspection; in others they are not. In some locations marriage records are computerized, in others they are not. So hiding a marriage is easy—all someone has to do is move, and not tell you where he or she used to live.
There is no nationwide central database of marriage records where you can find out if someone is married. The best the federal government can do, through the National Center for Health Statistics, is tell you where to write for vital records.
The vital information that the federal government does collect is limited to statistics. And for this, it depends upon data from the states.
State officials have banded together to form the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems. (NAPHSIS). This organization is primarily focused on information about births, deaths and public health. “We do not exchange data about marriages and divorces,” says Kenneth Beam, executive director of NAPHSIS.
Will the states ever try to share information on marriages? “Marriage records have not come up,” Beam says. “It’s not high on the screen.”
Your ability to find out if someone is married, therefore, is not going to improve anytime soon.
What can you do to search for marriage records?
If you want to search for marriage records, you need someplace to start—previous addresses, possible names of spouses, unidentified phone numbers. But even if you find no marriage records, that is no guarantee that a marriage does not exist.
Here are some suggestions:
1. Know your potential partner. Make sure you meet his or her family, friends, long-term acquaintances—people who know your love interest’s history. If your potential mate doesn’t introduce you to anyone who has known him or her for a long time, be cautious.
2. Take your time. If your beau is nothing but a sociopath looking for a score, he or she will be in a hurry. Any person who is whispering sweet nothings about “love at first sight” is probably in love with your assets. Keep in mind, however, that going slow is not foolproof — some sociopaths can maintain a charade as long as necessary to hook you.
Bigamists, sociopaths, and the call for a marriage database
To repeat, in the United States of America, it is impossible to find out if someone is married.
Donna Layne Roberts, whose ex-husband, William Barber, was married at least 12 times, drafted an online petition to Congress asking for a national database of marriages and divorces. Sandra Phipps, the seventh wife of bigamist Ed Hicks, supported the marriage database petition, and was interviewed in the Virginian-Pilot newspaper last week about her views.
There are people, however, who think a marriage database is a dumb idea. One of them is Kerry Dougherty, a columnist for the Virginian-Pilot. In an article called A good match can come from real talking, she wrote, “There’s a simple way to avoid marrying a bigamist. Get to know your betrothed before sprinting to the altar.”
Some people who posted comments about the database were even more vicious. “Come on, people! Caveat emptor! Take responsibility for the bad decision, and move on,” wrote Brett C. of Portsmouth. “These people who are conned by the bigamists have no one to blame but themselves,” wrote Debbie O. of Virginia Beach.
Bigamists are sociopaths
None of those commentators appear to understand the problem.
In Lovefraud’s view, most bigamists are sociopaths. Except for mistakes— a few people who think their divorce is finalized when it’s not—in this culture, only a sociopath marries more than one person at once.
Sociopaths have no conscience and feel no emotional connections to other people. This is what enables them to profess their love and devotion to multiple people at the same time. In reality, they have no love or devotion at all. They just mouth the words in order to convince their targets to give them what they want—usually money, sex and a free place to live.
So how do they do it? First of all, sociopaths are experts at sizing up a person’s vulnerabilities. Secondly, they are professional manipulators.
Sociopaths are fluent liars. They sidestep questions and always have a plausible answer when discrepancies are noticed. They create authentic-looking documentation. They imply that other people vouch for them, and actually convince other people to cover for them. They keep people apart so it’s impossible to compare notes.
As a result, it is extremely difficult to spot the deception of a sociopath and find out if someone is married.
Both Donna Layne Roberts and Sandra Phipps knew their betrotheds for more than two years before marrying them. Donna did a background check. That’s hardly “sprinting to the altar.”
More than bigamy
Bigamy is usually just one aspect of a sociopath’s wrongdoing. These people are predators who engage in a wide range of destructive behavior. If you find a bigamist, you’ll probably also find someone who commits fraud, embezzles money, reneges on child support, doesn’t pay taxes, steals from employers, deals drugs or abuses women—any number of nasty things.
Yet as long as the sociopaths don’t commit murder (although there are plenty who do), this country’s legal and financial systems are woefully inadequate in dealing with them. Most fraud offenses are not prosecuted. And for other offenses, sociopaths frequently talk their way out of trouble.
What is the problem? Our legal and financial systems are based on people following the rules. Sociopaths don’t follow the rules.
A marriage database would at least give people who have been targeted by sociopaths a chance to find out if someone is married or even discover the bigamy. Knowing the true character of the predator, they could avoid the trauma that always follows.
Free and clear
So what’s the problem with a marriage database? It’s difficult to think of this as a privacy issue. In many states a marriage license is already public record. So is a divorce. And since a marriage is a legal contract and a divorce is a legal settlement, in the states where these are not public record, they should be.
The point of a marriage database is to make the public records searchable.
You can’t buy a piece of property without getting a title search to make sure you own the property free and clear. It seems to me that getting married is at least as important as buying property. Why can’t we find out if someone is married, so we can be sure that our spouse is coming to us free and clear?