Were They Married: What’s More Reliable?

I’ve stripped the identifying details because these individuals were alive during my lifetime. The thought process and analysis is what matters.

A relative dies in California in the early 1970s and is survived by a woman with whom he shared his home. She is referred to as his “wife” in his obituary. His “wife” dies ten years later in California.

The relative’s intestate probate file documents who the heirs of the relative were at the time of his death and how the balance of his estate was distributed among his heirs. No wife is listed as an heir–only his siblings or children of pre-deceased siblings are listed. Those same individuals receive the entire balance of his estate. Again, no wife is listed. No spousal inheritance is indicated.

Ten years later the woman who was living with him at the time of his death dies. Her last name on the death certificate is two last names: the apparent last name of a previous husband and the last name of a relative. These two last names are separated by an “aka.” The woman’s marital status is listed as “widowed.” The informant’s name, address, and relationship to the deceased are given. The name and address are consistent with a known sister-in-law of the relative who died in the early 1970s. The relationship as stated on the death certificate is “sister-in-law.”

To date, a marriage record has not been located for the relative and the woman who was his purported wife.

But what is more likely to reflect the true marital relationship (were they married or not?): the probate record, the death record, or the obituary? That is the order in which I would give them credence. Had there been a legal marriage, the wife would have been entitled to inherit from his estate (if this is not something I am certain of, reference to appropriate state statue at the time in question is recommended). The woman living with him would have known that he died and, if she were entitled to his property, would likely have asserted her rights to it.

The death record states she is widowed, but that reference could have been to a previous husband. The informant being listed as a “sister-in-law” is evidence of a relationship between the two, but stronger evidence than that statement is needed.

And obituaries? Well they can always be incorrect.

Not all records are created equally.


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