Written by attorney Anthony Payman Azemika | Feb 3, 2012

A California Court of Appeals has found that the second marriage was valid because of Wife's belief.

A California Court of Appeals has ruled that Trial Court erred by finding that Wife did not qualify as putative spouse because her belief in validity of her marriage was not objectively reasonable. According to the Appealate Court, Trial Court should have focused on triable issues concerning whether Wife had good faith belief in her marriage’s validity. In the case ofCeja vs. Rudolph & Sletten, Father married his first Wife in 1995. They subsequently separated, after which they shared custody of their two children. In 1999, Father met the woman who would become his second Wife; he told her that he was separated from his first Wife. After Father and his second Wife moved in together in 2001, Father filed for divorce from his first Wife.

On September 24, 2003, Father and his second Wife filled out a form to obtain a marriage license, on which each claimed no prior marriages and declared that each was unmarried. Three days later, Father and second Wife were married by a Pentecostal pastor in San Juan Bautista before more than 250 guests. On November 23, 2003, Father signed a divorce declaration, stating that he and his first Wife had reached a written property settlement. Trial Court entered Father and his first Wife’s divorce judgment on December 26, 2003, and Father was sent a notice containing a warning against remarrying before the divorce judgment was filed.

In 2004, Father’s second Wife, seeking to be added to Father’s insurance coverage, sent copies of Father’s divorce papers to his union. On September 19, 2007, Father died in an accident at work. His second Wife subsequently learned that her marriage was void because Father’s divorce was not yet final when it took place. Wife sued Father’s employer for wrongful death under California Code of Civil Procedure Section 377.60 [authorizes wrongful death action by surviving spouse or putative spouse], claiming that she was Father’s putative spouse because she had good faith belief that their marriage was valid. Employer shot back a motion for summary judgment, asserting that second Wife did not qualify as Father’s putative spouse. Employer argued that Wife could not have reasonably objective belief that her marriage was valid because she (1) knew about Father’s prior marriage; (2) signed the marriage license on which Father falsely stated no prior marriages; (3) married Father before his divorce was final; and (4) sent a copy of his divorce judgment to Father’s union. Wife countered that (1) Father told her he had filed for divorce in 2001, and refused to discuss the divorce after that; (2) she had not read the marriage license or the divorce papers closely; (3) she and Father lived together as spouses, wore wedding rings, filed joint tax returns, and had joint bank account; (4) she used Father’s surname as her last name; and (5) she would not have married Father if she had known the marriage would not be valid.

Trial Court found that Wife’s belief in the validity of her marriage was not objectively reasonable, thus, Wife could not qualify as a putative spouse and lacked standing to sue. Accordingly, Trial Court granted summary judgment for Employer. Wife appealed, and Sixth District Court of Appeals has reversed Trial Court’s decision. The Appellate Court has found that (1) the original judicial definition of putative spouse and the legislative history require only that the putative spouse show "good faith belief in the validity of the marriage;" (2) the case ofVryonis"engrafted an objective test" on the original definition, erroneously reasoning that good faith belief includes objective standard; (3) good faith and reasonable objectiveness are separate concepts that are analyzed differently; (4) good faith belief is determined by analyzing a party’s subjective state of mind, honesty, sincerity, and lack of fraudulent or collusive intent (reasonable objectiveness is not); (5) the case ofVryonisimpermissibly "intruded upon the Legislature’s prerogative" by adding objective reasonableness to existing good-faith-belief requirement; (6) triable issues exist concerning whether Wife had good faith belief in validity of her marriage, but Trial Court failed to explore them; (8) Father’s giving of false information on the marriage license does not necessarily mean that the parties’ marriage was invalid; and (9) Wife’s failure to read the marriage license closely does not constitute lack of due diligence that negates good faith belief. Therefore, the Appellate Court has ruled that Trial Court erred by applying objective standard to determine that Wife was not putative spouse and thus, reverses Trial Court’s summary judgment ruling in favor of the Employer.

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