Barbara Sullivan considered herself happily married to retired pro football player Thomas Sullivan for two decades before his death. After he died in 2002, it appeared his NFL retirement benefits would leave her in stable financial shape.
But four years later, a woman named Lavona Hill suddenly stepped into the picture, claiming she was Sullivan’s wife and was entitled to all the benefits.
As it turns out, Sullivan had previously been married to Hill. Several years before Sullivan married Barbara, he separated from Hill. But the couple never actually got divorced, which meant that Sullivan and Barbara – who was completely unaware of Hill’s existence – were never technically married in the first place.
Barbara and Lavona went to court to fight about the retirement benefits. Barbara argued that since she had no idea that Sullivan had been married before, and since she had lived with him as his wife in good faith for 20 years, a judge should divide the benefits between the two women in some fair way that took both their interests into account.
Some courts have allowed such a result in this situation. But Barbara was out of luck, because the South Carolina Supreme Court said that under state law, only Lavona was the real wife, and only Lavona had a right to the retirement benefits.
The moral of the story: Before you tie the knot, make sure you (and your beloved) are finally, legally divorced from any former spouse. Jumping the gun before the last of the paperwork is completed can have very unfortunate consequences.