"Putative Spouse's" State of Mind As To Validity of the Marriage Is Applicable Under California Statute

June 27, 2013
By Thomas M. Huguenor on June 27, 2013 10:58 AM |

1164097_couple_in_love_3.jpgWhile not a common occurrence, people do get married with the false impression that the marriage is valid and recognizable under state law. This can occur when one of the parties has been married before and did not officially and legally dissolve the union. As one can imagine, such a situation can present all sorts of problems down the road. Divorcing spouses in San Diego are encouraged to consult with an experienced family law attorney who can handle the process with confidence and ease.

One huge problem that can occur with a marriage that is void from the very start is when the surviving spouse seeks damages in a wrongful death lawsuit. In a very recent case, the California Supreme Court was presented with the issue of whether a "putative spouse's" good faith belief that she was married to the decedent at the time of his death, is to be reviewed from an objective point of view or rather, a purely subjective one. That is, does it matter what the surviving spouse personally believed as to the validity of her marriage, or are the courts expected to look at what an ordinary objective person would believe.

Under California law, a wrongful death action may be brought by a decedent's putative spouse, which is defined as "the surviving spouse of a void or voidable marriage who is found by the court to have believed in good faith that the marriage to the decedent was valid."

In this case, the couple first met in 1999 while the decedent was married -- but separated. He filed for dissolution of his marriage in 2001, and started living with plaintiff at that time. In 2003, the couple filled out a license and certificate of marriage. They marked a "0" in decedent's number of pervious marriages. Plaintiff signed an affidavit verifying the accuracy of the information, despite her awareness of his previous marriage. The marriage license was issued and they married on September 27, 2003. But the decedent was still married to his (original) wife at that time.

Three years later, the decedent died in a construction site accident. Plaintiff brought a wrongful death action against defendant-company asserting that she was his putative spouse. Defendant raised an affirmative defense challenging plaintiff's standing to bring the action based on her status as putative spouse, claiming that she did not have the required "good faith belief" that her marriage was valid.

The trial court ruled granted defendant's motion for summary judgment. But the court of appeal reversed, finding that plaintiff's subjective state of mind (if the court found it to be credible) could support a finding of good faith belief, establishing putative status. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the statute contemplates a subjective standard that focuses on the putative spouse's state of mind to determine whether or not she had a genuine belief in the validity of the marriage. In rendering this decision, the Court pointed out that the trial court erred in applying a "reasonable person test" - requiring plaintiff's belief to be objectively reasonable.

Divorce can be difficult and complicated. An experienced family law attorney can simplify the process enabling both parties to get on with their lives as quickly and painlessly as possible.

For more than 35 years, San Diego family law attorney Thomas Huguenor has represented people navigating the California marriage and divorce process. For a free and confidential consultation, contact him today online or at (858) 458-9500.

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