California Appeals Court Issues Important Family Law Ruling

A recent California appellate court ruling may have significant consequences for a small number of people facing unusual family and civil law cases here in Orange County and elsewhere throughout the state. According to Metropolitan News Service, the ruling by the state’s Sixth District Court of Appeal establishes new criteria for what is known as the “putative spouse test,” allowing courts to use subjective criteria in determining the outcome of a case.

A “putative spouse” is someone who, in good faith, believes themselves to be married even though the union is, in fact, void (for example, because a California divorce has not been obtained to dissolve an earlier marriage). In this particular case the court was addressing the question of whether “a woman who claims she did not know that the man she married was already married to someone else” could file a wrongful death suit related to the demise of her ‘husband.’

According to Metropolitan, Nancy Ceja married her husband Robert in 2003 three months before his divorce from his first wife became official. Robert died in an on-the-job accident in 2007. Nancy claimed that she only discovered the couple’s marriage had never been valid when she moved to file a wrongful death suit related to Robert’s passing.

A lower court held that since Nancy had “used her husband’s divorce papers to obtain beneficiary status in his union’s insurance plan in 2004” she must “objectively” have noticed the discrepancy between the marriage and divorce dates. The appeals court overturned that ruling, accepting Nancy’s claim that she was unaware that her marriage was invalid, and establishing the precedent that courts can side with a defendant based on subjective criteria (what she says she believed), rather than relying only on objective facts (what documents in her possession said).

The ruling is an important one for the (admittedly, small) number of people faced with similar problems. Allowing putative spouse claims to turn on a judge’s view of a defendant’s subjective beliefs means that California family law attorneys will have to be especially careful in preparing (or defending against) such claims in the future. Choosing an appropriate, and experienced, Orange County family law specialist can be the difference between success and failure in complex and unusual cases like this.

Metropolitan News Service: Appellate court adopts subjective putative spouse test