In a bizarre legal twist, a Jefferson County court has found that a man was married to his ex-boyfriend as a result of a commitment ceremony in 2003, eleven years before gay marriage was legalized in Colorado.
As a result of the ruling on a complaint filed by his onetime partner, who sued for spousal support earlier this year, Denver-area resident Dean LaFleur had to divorce a man to whom he never believed he was married, losing a sizable amount of his assets in the settlement that resulted. "I'm not sure what the Supreme Court was intending when they said that not only do you [gay Americans] have the right to get married, but you always did," LaFleur says. "Did they really mean that the court can retroactively call you married? Because there's no such thing as retroactive divorce."
The analogy LaFleur uses to describe the situation is "being accused of committing a crime years later even though it wasn't illegal at the time you did it.
"We had a typical relationship fifteen years ago," LaFleur says of his former significant other (we've omitted his name to protect his privacy). "But he wanted to have some kind of ceremony to acknowledge our relationship."
LaFleur admits that "I was reluctant to do that," based on his observations during a lengthy stint in the military. "I'm a former Navy fighter pilot, and while I was in the Navy, I saw buddies getting nasty divorces — having to leave their homes, and having to watch their wives stay in their homes and entertain other men while they were staying in a small apartment. And I said, 'Man, I'm never going to wind up in that position. I'm never going to get married.'"
Nonetheless, LaFleur eventually decided to go along with the commitment ceremony because "it wasn't legally binding," he notes. "I thought, what could it hurt?"
As he readily admits, the 2003 ceremony looked like a wedding — and in court, his former boyfriend used photos from the event to prove that it was one. "Even the decorations were called into question," LaFleur recalls. "Like, 'Aren't those wedding bells hanging over your head?' But how do you decorate for a commitment ceremony? It was just a decoration."
He adds: "We called it a commitment ceremony, and the minister did, too. The most it could be called was a mock wedding, because not only wasn't gay marriage legal then, but we never dreamed it would be. If I felt gay marriage was going to happen just around the corner, I would have been shyer to do it."
Over the next few years, LaFleur says, "the relationship totally broke down, and I broke up with him and moved to California — and when he wouldn't leave my house, I called the police and they had to remove him."
But when LaFleur moved back to Colorado in 2009, "I started dating him again — and because he lived in Aurora, on the other side of the city, I allowed him to move back into the house the next year," he says. "I had a job where I would fly out on a Sunday and would only be home for about 48 hours a week, and I didn't want to spend all that time driving back and forth to Aurora to pick him up."
This struck LaFleur's sister as a dubious idea. "She warned me about it," he acknowledges. "She said, 'Remember how hard it was to get him out before?'"
Indeed, his boyfriend stuck around even after LaFleur says the romance had entirely left the pairing: "By 2013, we had really become roommates. We lived in different portions of the house and pursued other relationships. ... At that time, there definitely wasn't a marriage. The only time we really lived what you could call a married lifestyle was back in 2003."
Nonetheless, LaFleur concedes, he financially supported his former partner throughout this period. "I had to pay the mortgage and the utilities anyway," he points out, "and really, all he was doing was taking up space. And it was the path of least resistance, because he was difficult to get rid of."
As proof, LaFleur notes that, "when I asked him to finally leave in December of 2017, he sued me" — despite having gone out with another man for over a year. "They were planning on moving out and living together somewhere else until they broke up. In fact, his old boyfriend actually testified at the trial, saying, 'These guys weren't married. I was his boyfriend.'
"There were no joint tax returns, no shared ownership of cars and property and health insurance for spouses and things that normally indicate a common-law marriage," he continues. "We lived completely separate financial lives."
Noting this, First Judicial District Judge Margie Enquist said she didn't find the relationship to constitute a common-law marriage. Instead, on July 31, she ruled that the commitment ceremony constituted a marriage ceremony. She "declared that my agreement to participate in a ceremony that looked like a wedding, even though we didn't call it a wedding, was my agreement to be married," LaFleur says.
After that ruling, he continues, the marriage he didn't think had ever happened had to be dissolved. "There had to be a divorce," LaFleur says. "So there was another hearing on the 5th of September and a ruling on the 13th, when we were officially divorced."
His ex-partner had "asked for 70 percent of my net worth," but got what LaFleur characterizes as "considerably less." However, he was also awarded four years of spousal support, and because LaFleur spent $30,000 in court "trying to defend my retirement and his livelihood," he doesn't have the resources to appeal.
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LaFleur decided to share his story on the chance that it might catch the attention of a lawyer willing to cut him a break before the appeal window closes about a month from now: "I'm hoping someone reads this and says, 'This is an interesting case. I'd like to have a piece of that.'"
He believes his situation could be precedent-setting. "There could be thousands of people who took part in commitment ceremonies during the years prior to gay marriage," he notes. "Now, a lot of those people have probably gone to the courthouse and become legally married. But what about the people who didn't? Are they in danger of the court doing what happened to me — going back in time and telling them they were actually married? And how far back would they go? If there was a mock wedding in 1968, would that still count? What's the limit?"
Even at the time of the 2003 commitment ceremony, "I knew I didn't want to be married to him," LaFleur says. "I did love him, and I enjoyed having a ceremony where we expressed that to our friends and family. However, it was not in any way a legal wedding. I've never had any desire to be part of that."
The bottom line for LaFleur: "I'm just asking to be held to the laws that were in place at the time, not the way the laws might be in the future."