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Court Explains the Distinction Between a Dissolution and Nullity Action in a Recent California Family Law Case

Last month, the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District issued a written opinion in an interesting family law case requiring the court to determine if a previous court order in a dissolution case finding that a couple was not legally married precluded litigation of whether the marriage existed in a subsequent nullity case. Ultimately, the court determined that since the two causes of action involve different primary rights, the previous court’s finding that no marriage existed did not prevent the wife from later seeking a nullity action.

CourtroomWhat Is Res Judicata?

Under the doctrine of res judicata, once a court decides an issue, that finding cannot be revisited in a subsequent case. There are two types of arguments that are precluded under the doctrine of res judicata, claim preclusion and issue preclusion. Claim preclusion prevents the same parties from relitigating a case once it has been decided. Issue preclusion prevents parties from relitigating the same issue in a subsequent case, as long as the parties are in privity.

The Facts of the Case

In 2014, the wife filed a dissolution action against the husband, claiming that the two were married in Mexico in 1989, citing irreconcilable differences. The husband claimed that the two were never married. After hearing the evidence, the court concluded that no valid marriage existed and dismissed the wife’s case.

Several months later, the wife filed a nullity action against the husband, claiming that the marriage into which she thought she had entered was fraudulent. She cited the husband’s recent denial of the existence of a marriage during the dissolution action as evidence that the two were never actually married. She successfully sought temporary spousal support until the case was resolved.

The husband appealed, arguing that the case establishing that the two had never been legally married (the dissolution case) had already been decided and that res judicata prevented the wife from attempting to relitigate the case. Essentially, the husband was arguing that the previous dissolution case already answered the question of whether the couple had ever been married, and there was no need for this case.

The court disagreed with the husband and allowed the wife’s case to proceed. The court began by clarifying that the husband’s argument was that the dissolution case was determinative of whether a marriage existed. Thus, the husband was making a claim preclusion argument. However, since the court determined that a nullity action and a dissolution action involve different primary rights, the dissolution case was not preclusive of the nullity action.

The court explained that dissolution actions dissolve a valid marriage. Thus, a person’s married status – while valid at the time of filing – would change to unmarried after the action is complete. A dissolution case is based on grounds that occur after the alleged marriage. A nullity action, however, is based on grounds that occur before a marriage was ever formalized and answers whether there was ever a valid marriage at all.

Are You Involved in a California Divorce Proceeding?

If you are considering filing for a California divorce or nullity action, you need the assistance of an experienced California family law attorney. As you can see from the discussion above, even seemingly simple concepts can quickly become complex. San Jose divorce attorney John S. Yohanan has decades of experience helping his clients understand California family law, and he puts his advanced knowledge of the law to use for his clients. Call 408-297-0700 to schedule a free consultation with Bay Area family law attorney John S. Yohanan today.

Related Blog Posts:

California Child Custody Cases: Gauging Best Interests, Bay Area Divorce Attorney Blog, August 31, 2017

Court Refuses to Retroactively Apply Permanent Spousal Support Order in Recent California Divorce Case, Bay Area Divorce Attorney Blog, August 15, 2017