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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, December 6, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Sex Change Didn’t ‘Magically Dissolve’ Marriage

(CN) - A Michigan woman suffering from dementia was properly granted a divorce from her husband who had surgically become a woman, a state appeals court ruled.

Devon Pearl Burnett got married in 1984 and lived with her husband until 2005.

Two years earlier, Burnett's husband had undergone gender reassignment surgery to become a woman.

While their mother was 79 and suffering from dementia, her children, Joseph Buxbaum and Beryl Ellen Niles, filed for divorce.

Bobbie Eliza Burnett, as the spouse is named in the court record, initially tried to challenge the authority of guardians and conservators to sue for divorce on behalf of an incapacitated ward.

When that failed, she argued that the court did not have jurisdiction since the marriage had been illegal under Michigan law, which recognizes marriage as the union between one man and one woman.

Granting a divorce would be an implicit recognition of marriage between individuals of the same gender, she argued.

The Washtenaw Circuit Court shot this argument down, however, finding that the parties entered into a valid marriage contract, not a same-sex marriage contract.

After the court entered a final judgment of divorce, a three-judge panel of Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal of the two challenges Tuesday.

"Contrary to defendant's argument, the current rules specifically allow a guardian or conservator to bring an action for divorce on behalf of a mentally incompetent spouse," Judge Christopher Murray wrote for the court.

"Had the Legislature intended to prohibit an action by a guardian on behalf of a spouse, it could have expressly said so in the language of [the statute]," he added.

"We likewise reject defendant's argument that his alleged post-operative status somehow magically dissolved what was otherwise a valid marriage," Murray wrote.

"Once validly entered into, one spouse's actions cannot unilaterally result in the legal dissolution of the marriage without court involvement," he added.

Devon Pearl Burnett died while the appeal was pending.

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