Marital Privileges

By Caroline Rule
The Journal of the Section of Litigation
Vol. 45 No. 4 Summer 2019

Marriage is perplexing, and the marital privileges even more so. Contradictory views determine when they apply and what they protect. In many states, statutes, rather than case law, govern, but federal law leaves it to the courts, which sometimes results in conflicting decisions among the circuits.

There are two quite different and separate safeguards for spouses. One is the confidential marital communications privilege, which, with some exceptions, allows a spouse to refuse to testify about, or produce documents evidencing, any confidential communication made during a marriage and allows the other spouse to prevent that testimony or document production.

The other privilege is the adverse spousal witness privilege, which applies in criminal proceedings and allows one spouse to refuse to testify against the other spouse. This privilege belongs only to the non-defendant spouse, however. Unless the defendant can invoke the confidential marital communications privilege, she cannot prevent her spouse from testifying against her if he decides to do so. This form of the privilege applies only while the marriage exists. And numerous states have repealed the adverse spousal witness privilege entirely.

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