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SALT LAKE CITY — Janetta Gardiner lived with and cared for Jacob Kenneth Vanderwerff for three years before he died of cancer at age 78 in April 2010 — and legally married him a month later.
Vanderwerff's cousins challenged a 2nd District Court's granting of a declaration of unsolemnized marriage, eventually getting it thrown out.
But the Utah Supreme Court reinstated the marriage Tuesday, ruling that the relatives did not have legal standing to intervene in the matter.
The complicated case clarifies who has the right to contest a judicial declaration of marriage. It also gives guidance on when and how notification is to be made in the unusual circumstance where a person seeks a marriage declaration with someone who is dead.
Robert Fuller, Gardiner's attorney, said the Ogden woman, now in her early 80s, wanted to be married to Vanderwerff for religious reasons and had nothing do to with Vanderwerff's apparently modest estate, which was settled before the Supreme Court ruling.
It's not like anybody's hit a home run and big dollars are changing hands now. It's more of how society should function and who should be able to challenge and attack marriages.
–Robert Fuller, Gardiner's attorney
"It's not like anybody's hit a home run and big dollars are changing hands now," Fuller said. "It's more of how society should function and who should be able to challenge and attack marriages."
Vanderwerff and Gardiner developed a relationship after his first wife died in 2007. They moved into a mobile home together and even had a "little ceremony and he gave her a ring," Fuller said, adding she met all the requirements for a non-solemnized marriage under Utah law.
Gardiner "assisted in (Vanderwerff's) battle with cancer and provide him with support in his trials" until he died in Ogden on April 22, 2010, according to his obituary. A month later, she filed a court petition on her own for a declaration of marriage.
Fuller said being married would allow Gardiner to go to her religious leaders with a marriage certificate that would qualify her for rituals she believes affect the hereafter.
"It was very important to her — not particularly the money — but she wanted that status so she could do certain things that she thought were important," he said.
The five justices ruled that the district court erred when it allowed Vanderwerff's four cousins to intervene in the case, set aside the marriage declaration, and then dismissed the case.
Fuller appealed the rulings, and the case made its way to the Utah Supreme Court.
When a person petitions the court for an unsolemnized marriage, he or she must serve legal notice on the estate of the deceased.
In this case, Vanderwerff had no children, and his self-proved will named Gardiner as his personal representative, Fuller said. She waived notification of the estate based on that position.
The Supreme Court found that the district court erroneously concluded that Gardiner failed to validly notify the estate and, based on that error, allowed Vanderwerff's cousins to intervene and threw out her marriage declaration.
Cousins and distant relatives shouldn't be able to "show up and start meddling in something as sacred as a marriage," Fuller said.
"Had the court said cousins have standing to intervene in marriage petitions, well, my goodness. That means if cousins have standing, so do parents, so do children," he said. "Suppose somebody doesn't like a same-sex couple getting married. You could have people coming out of the woodwork petitioning the court, arguing against this marriage."