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TAHAEI v. TAHAEI

Seyed D. Tahaei (a.k.a., David Tahaei), Respondent,
v.
Sherri L. Tahaei (f.k.a., Sherri L. Smith), Appellant.
Unpublished Opinion No. 2012-UP-078.

Court of Appeals of South Carolina.

Submitted March 1, 2011.
Filed February 8, 2012.

Sherri L. Tahaei, pro se, of Summerville.

Edward J. Dennis, IV, of Moncks Corner, for Respondent.

R. Clenton Campbell, of Walterboro, for Guardian ad Litem.

Not to be Published

PER CURIAM:

Sherri L. Tahaei (f.k.a. Sherri L. Smith) (Sherri), pro se, appeals the family court's final order finding she failed to establish the existence of a common-law marriage. She argues the family court erred in: (1) finding no common-law marriage existed; (2) failing to enforce multiple orders requiring Seyed D. Tahaei (Seyed) to produce immigration and financial documents; and (3) failing to grant her motion for a continuance after Seyed failed to timely provide discovery documents. We affirm in part and reverse in part.[1]

"The family court is a court of equity." Lewis v. Lewis, 392 S.C. 381, 386, 709 S.E.2d 650, 652 (2011). In appeals from the family court, the appellate court reviews factual and legal issues de novo. Simmons v. Simmons, 392 S.C. 412, 414, 709 S.E.2d 666, 667 (2011). "De novo review permits appellate court fact-finding, notwithstanding the presence of evidence supporting the [family] court's findings." Lewis, 392 S.C. at 390, 709 S.E.2d at 654-55. However, this broad standard of review does not require the appellate court to disregard the factual findings of the family court or ignore the fact that the family court is in the better position to assess the credibility of the witnesses. Pinckney v. Warren, 344 S.C. 382, 387, 544 S.E.2d 620, 623 (2001). Moreover, the appellant is not relieved of the burden of demonstrating error in the family court's findings of fact. Id. at 387-88, 544 S.E.2d at 623.

I. Common-Law Marriage

Sherri argues the family court erred in finding she failed to meet her burden of proof because she provided sufficient evidence to prove a common-law marriage existed. We agree.

"Whether a common-law marriage exists is a question of law." Callen v. Callen, 365 S.C. 618, 623, 620 S.E.2d 59, 62 (2005). "The proponent of the alleged marriage has the burden of proving the elements by a preponderance of the evidence." Id. "A common-law marriage is formed when two parties contract to be married." Callen, 365 S.C. at 624, 620 S.E.2d at 62. "No express contract is necessary; the agreement may be inferred from the circumstances." Id. "The fact finder is to look for mutual assent: the intent of each party to be married to the other and a mutual understanding of each party's intent. Consideration is the participation in the marriage. If these factual elements are present, then the court should find as a matter of law that a common-law marriage exists." Id.

"Further, when the proponent proves that the parties participated in apparently matrimonial cohabitation, and that while cohabiting the parties had a reputation in the community as being married, a rebuttable presumption arises that a common-law marriage was created." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). "This presumption may be overcome by strong, cogent evidence that the parties in fact never agreed to marry." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

We find the family court erred as a matter of law because Sherri provided ample evidence to support her contention she and Seyed were common-law married. First, the family court erred by finding Seyed never listed Sherri as his wife "on any documentation." Multiple documents in the record indicate a common-law marriage existed. For example, (1) a family court order granting Sherri a restraining order because of domestic abuse by Seyed and specifically finding Sherri and Seyed were "husband and wife"; (2) two newspaper articles announcing the birth of their second child and identifying the couple as "David and Sherri Tahaei"; and (3) a health insurance policy questionnaire in which Seyed checked a box on a form indicating he has "a common-law marriage" and listing "Sherri L. Smith-Tahaei" as his wife. Additionally, Sherri testified she and Seyed cohabitated for approximately eight years. Moreover, Sherri's next door neighbor testified Seyed introduced Sherri as his wife and that she believed Sherri and Seyed were living together as husband and wife. Finally, Sherri's daughter from an earlier relationship testified Seyed raised her as his step-daughter and explained she called him "Daddy David."

We find Sherri proved by a preponderance of the evidence that she and Seyed agreed to live as husband and wife. See Callen, 365 S.C. at 624, 620 S.E.2d at 62.

Seyed provided very little in the way of rebuttal evidence. He disputed the validity of the documents entered by Sherri and testified that he moved out for a period of time during the cohabitation. Seyed's testimony was not strong, cogent evidence sufficient to rebut the presumption that the couple agreed to marry. See id.

Accordingly, we reverse the family court's finding that Sherri failed to establish the existence of a common-law marriage.

II. Remaining Issues

With regard to Sherri's remaining issues on appeal, we affirm pursuant to Rule 220(b)(1), SCACR, and the following authorities:

1. As to whether the family court erred in failing to enforce multiple orders requiring Seyed to produce immigration and financial documents to Sherri: Halverson v. Yawn, 328 S.C. 618, 621, 493 S.E.2d 883, 884 (Ct. App. 1997) (holding a trial judge's exercise of her discretionary powers with respect to sanctions imposed in discovery matters will not be disturbed on appeal absent a clear abuse of discretion).
2. As to whether the family court erred in denying Sherri's motion for a continuance: Moore v. Moore, 376 S.C. 467, 482, 657 S.E.2d 743, 751 (2008) (holding the grant or denial of a continuance is within the sound discretion of the trial judge and is reviewable on appeal only when an abuse of discretion appears in the record).

AFFIRMED IN PART AND REVERSED IN PART.

WILLIAMS, GEATHERS, and LOCKEMY, JJ., concur.

[1] We decide this case without oral argument pursuant to Rule 215, SCACR.