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Omaha doctors get a divorce but can't agree on when — or whether — they got married

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Forget about spacing off an anniversary date.

Two Omaha doctors can’t even agree on when, where or whether they ever got married.

The husband, Dr. Tyron Alli, questions whether he was officially married. His former wife, Dr. Patricia Seivert, insists they were married twice — once on a beach in Hawaii and once in their living room in Omaha.

The contentiousness over such a simple fact — when and whether they got married — was just part of a case that took the (wedding) cake.

The couple-million-dollar divorce out of Douglas County went all the way to the Nebraska Supreme Court for the high court to decide, among other things, their actual wedding date.

In essence, the Supreme Court recently ruled, it’s not enough for a couple to live together for decades, have four children together, file taxes together and tell anyone who listens that they’re together.

Nope, the high court says, state law requires them to formalize their marriage through a marriage license, a certificate of marriage and a ceremony presided over by a licensed officiant.

In its May 21 ruling, the Nebraska Supreme Court seemed to suggest that it wasn’t entirely satisfied with the way state law spells out what constitutes marriage.

Nine states — including Iowa, Kansas and Colorado — recognize common-law marriages if the couples do such basic things as live together. Nebraska does not.

“In reaching this conclusion, we are not without sympathy for Seivert,” Nebraska Supreme Court Judge Jonathan Papik wrote on behalf of the unanimous court. “Alli admits that even he believed he was lawfully married in 1996 and represented that was the case to everyone from the Internal Revenue Service, lenders and employers to family and friends.

“As we have previously explained, however ... any expansion of the state’s ... marriage principles is the province of the Legislature rather than this court.”

The case’s twists have family law attorneys questioning whether they have a new wrinkle to worry about in the often-cantankerous world of divorce proceedings. Now, Omaha family law attorney John Kinney said, divorce lawyers first may have to vet whether clients have a valid marriage license before advising them on a divorce.

“A lot of times, people don’t think of the consequences of not being technically married until they realize they’re going to get a divorce,” said Kinney, who reviewed the case, though he wasn’t involved. “These two took a devil-may-care attitude towards certifying their marriage and it ended up biting her. ... I haven’t seen anything quite like it.”

Kinney says onlookers shouldn’t hold their breath for the Nebraska Legislature to expand state law to better recognize common-law marriages. The number of states that recognize common-law marriage principles has been shrinking in recent years, from 15 to nine.

States have been rethinking those laws, in part because courts have become clogged with word-of-mouth disputes over when the couple started living together, sharing assets, sharing expenses, etc.

“It creates an evidentiary nightmare for courts,” Kinney said.

Contrast that with the ease with which couples can get married now, and states are asking the question: “Why are we taking up the courts’ time trying to decide whether and when people entered into a common-law marriage?” Kinney said. “There’s a feeling of, ‘If you want to feel and act like you’re married and get the benefits of marriage, then just go get married.’”

When Seivert and Alli officially got married was a painstaking, tedious question for the courts.

According to the Nebraska Supreme Court ruling:

Seivert said they got married on a beach in Hawaii in 1996. Alli said it was just a vacation and no ceremony took place.

“Seivert testified that in Hawaii, she and Alli signed some papers and participated in a marriage ceremony on the beach by their hotel. She recalled being given some type of certificate but did not recall what she or Alli did with it,” the high court wrote.

Back in Omaha, the couple lived together and had children in 1998, 2000, 2003 and 2004.

Then, in 2012, an insurance company performing an audit asked for the couple’s marriage certificate. Seivert testified she was unable to find the marriage certificate — and that Hawaii officials told her that any records had been purged. So she and Alli agreed to obtain a marriage license in Douglas County and have a ceremony performed. Seivert and Alli signed and dated the marriage license application.

Seivert said they had a ceremony in their living room on Jan. 26, 2012. Alli said they did not.

“Alli testified he signed the acknowledgment of a ... ceremony because Seivert asked him to but it was a lie,” the high court wrote.

In finalizing their divorce, Douglas County District Judge Russell Bowie said that he did not have enough evidence to establish that the couple were married in Hawaii in 1996. However, the judge ruled, he did have enough from January 2012 to declare them officially, legally married. He then computed how much each party should receive — awarding Seivert $2 million plus $5,000 a month in alimony and $8,400 a month in child support.

Seivert suggested that she should have received more but was penalized by the court not recognizing the marital relationship as having started in 1996.

Attorneys for Alli, meanwhile, argued that Bowie awarded Seivert too much.

Kinney said the divorce shows that the “law can be hypertechnical and it can be harsh.”

“The bottom line is, if you want the marriage to be recognized, you’re going to have to jump through these hoops,” he said. “We all want to be in love and we want to have fun. But you have to take something like getting married pretty darn seriously.”


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Reporter - Courts

Todd Cooper covers courts, lawyers, trials, legal issues, the justice system and government wrongdoing for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @CooperonCourts. Phone: 402-444-1275.

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