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I saw this screenshot floating around for a California jury duty online questionnaire. Notice that "Not known" is a selectable option for one's marital status:

(image redacted)

I don't know why someone's marital status would legally be unknown.

Under what cases would someone truthfully able to answer on a legal form that they don't know their marital status?

I can think of some possibilities that this field can be filled as unknown, such as if someone's filling in the form on someone else's behalf or if the filler has a mental disability. However, for the purposes of this post, let's ignore cases where one cannot recall one's marital status on their own, and only consider the case where it would legally be unknown.

I think one instance is if someone's working on getting their marriage annulled and doesn't know whether the process is complete or not. But are there other cases?

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  • 7
    A person whose spouse is missing and may or may not be dead is one possibility. May 29 at 0:28
  • 3
    You may think but not know that a divorce was finalized; you may think (or not) that a marriage was legally contracted. If a man cohabits with a woman for 7 years in California, does he know whether they are common-law married? If you married two wives in Saudia Arabia and the first one died, are you married under California law? Even though ignorance of the law is no excuse, it is still a fact. It is therefore better to say "I don't know" than to perjure yourself (being wrong is not perjury, but many people don't know that).
    – user6726
    May 29 at 1:04
  • @user6726 Attempted/full/partial answers should go in answers, not comments. May 29 at 5:20
  • @user6726 please dont post answers as comments. Comments get deleted all the time. Then your useful info is lost. Good answers are rarely removed.
    – Neil Meyer
    May 29 at 7:51
  • If this was Dynasty, I'd guess amnesia
    – Richard
    May 29 at 12:13

3 Answers 3

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This Marriage Annulment FAQ purports to be based on real-world examples. The reasons for not knowing the status of a marriage appear to fall into three main categories;

  • That the marriage process is later found out to be suspect (e.g. that the marriage may not have been conducted or registered correctly)

  • The one or both parties may have still been married at the time of their subsequent marriage (or may not have gone sufficiently far through the process of divorce to be allowed to be legally remarried).

  • That the wedding or divorce have additional complications relating to different territories or jurisdictions, for example marrying in a foreign country and not realising that ceremony may be invalid elsewhere.

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    There was the opposite situation a while ago - lots of tourists get married in Las Vegas for fun. These marriages were not recognised in Germany. Then germany changed its laws, and some German tourists got caught out and got unintentionally caught in a legal marriage.
    – gnasher729
    May 29 at 16:00
  • @gnasher729 - There have been some very notable celebrity marriages where one or other party has tried to argue that it doesn't count because it was held overseas
    – Richard
    May 29 at 16:04
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California law allows for "no-fault" divorce, where one spouse can seek a divorce unilaterally. Normally the other spouse would be informed of this by being served with the summons. But in some cases, service can be effected by mailing the papers to a "last known address", or publishing in a newspaper in an area where the other spouse is thought likely to reside. In either case it is quite possible that the papers are never actually seen by the other spouse.

So there could be cases where the other spouse suspects that they may have been divorced, but doesn't know for sure, and hasn't done the necessary research to find out.

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As one example, spouses of the same sex who married in San Francisco in February-March 2004 could certainly be forgiven for being uncertain of their legal marital status. Their marriages initially appeared valid, were fought through several levels of appeals over the following six months, and eventually voided by the state Supreme Court.

Same-sex marriage was then ruled to be constitutionally permitted in May 2008; then banned again via initiative constitutional amendment in November 2008; and finally, after five more years of appeals, legalized again based on a 2013 US Supreme Court Ruling.

According to the ACLU, the 2004 licenses remained void, and such couples would have had to legally remarry either in summer 2008 or after 2013. But if they weren't particularly legally savvy or well informed about the latest developments, there could very well have been points in this process at which they honestly didn't know whether they were legally married.

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    Many wouldn’t tick the “I don’t know” box because they are not even aware that they don’t know.
    – gnasher729
    Jun 2 at 13:40

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