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In Sinatra vs. Sinatra, Texas court asked: What is a marriage?


Highlights

Texan Cynthia Sinatra says her relationship with Frank Sinatra Jr. remained a marriage even after divorce.

An earlier court victory gave Cynthia a half share of his $4.5 million Beverly Hills home and $500,000.

Texas Supreme Court now asked to decide if the couple still had a common-law marriage after their divorce.

Cynthia Sinatra, a Southeast Texas lawyer who married noted bandleader Frank Sinatra Jr. in 1998 — only to be divorced almost 2½ years later — has asked the Texas Supreme Court to acknowledge their continuing relationship as a common-law marriage.

“We never stopped loving each other, and I really can’t imagine what led up to that one moment” of divorce, Cynthia Sinatra testified during a 2013 hearing in her long-running case.

Frank Sinatra Jr., who died in March while the legal fight was still underway, acknowledged Cynthia Sinatra as the love of his life but insisted that their marriage ended in 2001. Although the couple remained close after their divorce, they didn’t maintain the type of husband-wife relationship that would have entitled Cynthia Sinatra to a share of his assets, his lawyers argued.

Round one, however, went to Cynthia Sinatra — and in emphatic fashion.

After ruling that the couple continued to be informally married for a decade after they separated, a state district judge in Wharton County granted Cynthia Sinatra a second divorce in 2014, giving her a half-interest in Frank Sinatra Jr.’s Beverly Hills home (valued at $4.5 million) and ordering him to pay $500,000, plus $5,000 a month for one year.

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Frank Sinatra Jr. appealed, only to die of a heart attack at age 72 while on tour in Florida. His estate took up the legal battle, winning round two last summer when a Corpus Christi-based appeals court ruled that Cynthia Sinatra was owed nothing because there was no common-law marriage.

Cynthia next asked the Texas Supreme Court to accept her case and reinstate the Wharton County judge’s ruling. The state’s highest civil court has yet to rule on her request.

Agreed to be married?

Texas is among about 15 states that recognize some form of common-law marriage, also known as informal marriage, for those who can prove to a court that they had established a marital relationship without going through a ceremony or obtaining a government-issued license.

The designation — most often sought to resolve inheritance disputes or to seek a division of assets after a breakup — is set by law and fairly straightforward, although there is plenty of room for interpretation.

To qualify as informally married in Texas, a couple must:

• Agree that they were married.

• Represent to others that they were married.

• Have lived together as spouses in Texas, though no time limit is specified.

When it threw out the lower court ruling that the Sinatras had a common-law marriage, the 13th Court of Appeals said it could find no evidence that Frank Sinatra Jr. intended or agreed to remain married after the 2001 divorce.

In court documents, Cynthia Sinatra and her lawyers disputed that conclusion, noting that Frank Sinatra Jr. continued to acknowledge Cynthia Sinatra as his wife — publicly and privately — for years after the divorce and continued to financially support Cynthia Sinatra long after his court-ordered alimony payments had ended.

During performances, Frank Sinatra Jr. would ask the crowd to recognize his wife, Cynthia Sinatra. He referred to himself as “your husband” in voicemails and acknowledged Cynthia as his spouse in letters and cards, including one to “My wife, my friend, my forever sweetheart.”

During Cynthia Sinatra’s unsuccessful challenge to U.S. Rep. Ron Paul in the 2006 Republican primary, Frank Sinatra Jr. taped an ad in which he urged voters to support “my wife Cynthia Sinatra.” A 2010-11 donation to Cynthia Sinatra’s law school alma mater was from “Frank and Cynthia M. Sinatra.”

If Frank Sinatra Jr. considered himself divorced, he would have stopped providing alimony payments after two years, as required by the divorce decree, her lawyers argued. Instead, he continued to support Cynthia Sinatra for another decade, paying for clothes, groceries, housekeepers, home repairs and other living expenses.

The evidence, her lawyers argue, shows that Frank Sinatra Jr. considered himself to be married.

As for the common-law requirement that the Sinatras had to live together in Texas, Cynthia Sinatra testified that Frank Sinatra Jr. returned to her home in Wharton, southwest of Houston, as frequently as his performance schedule allowed, as often as several times a month, and could stay for weeks at a time.

The living arrangement, she said, was as husband and wife, not as a man visiting a friend.

The other side

Married just one time in a life frequently overshadowed by his famous father, Frank Sinatra Jr. readily agreed that Cynthia Sinatra would always be his “wife” but added that the term didn’t mean they remained married.

“This is the only woman I was ever married to,” he testified in 2013. “She had that place in the history of my life.”

As for calling Cynthia Sinatra his spouse in public, he said there was no way he would insult her with the term “former wife.” Besides, he said, their marital status was nobody else’s business.

In addition to considering himself divorced, not married, Frank Sinatra Jr. couldn’t have been involved in an informal marriage because he never lived in Texas, his lawyers argued.

While married, Cynthia Sinatra and her daughters lived in Frank Sinatra Jr.’s Beverly Hills home and returned to Wharton after the divorce. His trips to Wharton were visits — he didn’t have a key to Cynthia’s home and had to borrow her car to get around, his lawyers said.

Cynthia Sinatra and Frank Sinatra Jr. filed separate tax forms listing separate residences in different states, and he always listed California as his residence in legal papers, court records show. In fact, Frank Sinatra Jr. paid California taxes, something he could have avoided had he lived in Texas, where residents pay no income tax, his lawyers argued.

“Cynthia cannot transform the couple’s sporadic continuation of intimate relations when Frank visited Wharton into ‘living together in this state as husband and wife’ when Frank always lived in California, by Cynthia’s admission,” his lawyers told the Texas Supreme Court.

As for the continued payments to Cynthia Sinatra, Frank Sinatra Jr. said he provided support because he believed it was the appropriate thing to do.

The payments — which eventually totaled $4.7 million and were listed on gift tax returns as going to his ex-wife — proved to be a financial strain that couldn’t continue, his lawyers said. The flow of money ended in July 2012, prompting Cynthia Sinatra to file the lawsuit that is now before the Supreme Court, they said.



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