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California Supreme Court Rules for a Subjective Standard in Putative Spouse Classification Cases — Ceja v. Rudolph & Sletten, INC.

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In a divorce settlement, the classification of a spouse can affect the rights of all parties involved; especially in property division. Most people are unaware that California has different spousal classifications or, even more surprising, are unaware of their own spousal classification.

A common spouse classification in California courts is the putative spouse. California will consider an individual a putative spouse when a marriage has been invalidated and one party reasonably believed the marriage existed. A marriage can invalid for several reasons like bigamy where one party enters into a marriage without dissolving a prior marriage. The classification was created out of fairness to protect the rights of an individual who reasonably believed that their marriage was valid.

A putative spouse has all the rights that a normal spouse would have. There are California cases where the outcome of the divorce settlement depended on the classification of one party as a putative spouse. When dissolving a marriage, it is recommended you talk to an experienced family law attorney who will help you protect your rights.

One example comes from a 2009 California appellate court decision, in Re Tejeda, where a putative spouse classification was sought to protect property distribution. A man and a women had been in a marriage for over thirty years. The husband filed for dissolution. Subsequently, the wife, citing a previous marriage that her husband never dissolved, brought an action to invalidate the marriage. She then filed another action requesting all property in her possession be confirmed her separate property. The husband then requested a putative spouse determination. By trying to invalidate the marriage, the wife wanted to avoid having the property subject to community property laws.

Last year, the California Supreme Court made a very important ruling in putative spouse cases, holding that the standard for determining an individual’s putative spouse classification depended upon one spouse’s “subjective” belief in the validity of the marriage. In Ceja v. Rudolph & Sletten, INC., the husband had been in a previous marriage when he entered a marriage with his second wife. Prior to the second marriage, he told his second wife that he had been married but had separated. At the time of the second marriage, the husband was actually in the process of dissolution of the first marriage. After the second marriage, the husband received documentation for the dissolution of the previous marriage, which the second wife read. The lower court reasoned that an “objectively” reasonable person would have, at that point, known their marriage was invalid. The lower court invalidated the marriage and did not grant the wife putative spouse status.

The ruling in Ceja v. Rudolph & Sletten, INC. overturns a 1988 appellate court ruling in a case titled, In re Marriage of Vryonis. In Vryonis, the husband and wife held a secret Muslim marriage ceremony but did not file for marriage. They kept the marriage secret to prevent family strife. The Vyronnis court used an “objective” standard, which many California courts followed, finding that a reasonable person would know that a secret Muslim ceremony would not give rise to a good faith belief in a marriage.

The Ceja court felt that youth, inexperience, and lack of education should be factored into whether a spouse had a “good faith” belief in the validity of the marriage. The court held that a good faith inquiry was a subjective inquiry and should focus on subjective state of mind of the alleged putative spouse. While the court ruled there was not requirement for an objective belief, the court noted that the subjective belief should look at the totality of circumstances, which includes an objective understanding in certain circumstances. The court listed several factors including the efforts to create the marriage, the alleged putative spouse’s background and experience, and all the circumstances surrounding the marriage.

The decision in Ceja v. Rudolph & Sletten, INC. will have ramifications on future putative spouse cases. If you are in the process of a separation or divorce, it is recommended that you speak with a qualified family law attorney who help you understand the issues involved and protect your rights.

San Jose Divorce Lawyer, John S. Yohanan, has extensive experience handling both divorce settlements and divorce trials. If you want a divorce lawyer with more than 30 years of experience on your side, call our office at (408) 297-0700.

Additional Resources:
Putative marriage, 2014, Wikipedia

Putative Spouse Doctrine Feb. 11, 2014, Legal Information Institute

More Blog Entries:
California Appeals Court Holds a Voluntary Declaration of Paternity Not a Guarantee of Presumed Father Status — In re Jovanni B., Jan. 30, 2014, San Jose Family Law Blog

The Most Important Reason for a Cohabitation Agreement, Nov. 5, 2013, San Jose Family Law Blog