Key Decisions

July 2013 – One’s Status As A Putative Spouse Is Subjective

(filed under: Key Decisions Archive | July 22, 2013)

One’s Status As A Putative Spouse Is Subjective

Ceja v. Rudolph & Sletten, Inc.
(Cal. Sup. Ct.), filed June 20, 2013, published June 20, 2013

Nancy and Robert Ceja were married by the pastor of a Pentecostal church in a big wedding ceremony attended by many guests.  Four years later, Robert Ceja was killed in an accident at work.  Nancy Ceja sued his employer for wrongful death.

Before filing the action, Nancy Ceja learned that her marriage was void because the wedding had taken place a few months before Robert Ceja’s divorce from his first wife became final.  Consequently, to establish her standing to sue, Nancy Ceja alleged that she was a “putative spouse” under Code of Civil Procedure Section 377.60.  That section defines a putative spouse as party to a void or voidable marriage who is found by the court to have “believed in good faith that the marriage . . . was valid.”

Robert Ceja’s employer moved for summary judgment claiming that Nancy Ceja did not qualify as a putative spouse.  The trial court agreed and granted summary judgment.  Applying an objective test for putative status, the court found that it was not objectively reasonable for Nancy Ceja to have believed that her marriage was valid.

The Court of Appeal reversed.  It concluded the trial court applied the wrong test.  It held that section 377.69 requires only that an alleged putative spouse “believed in good faith” that the marriage was valid.  It reasoned that the language of section 377.69 does not establish an objective standard.  Rather, it refers to the alleged putative spouse’s state of mind and asks whether that person actually believed the marriage was valid and whether he or she held that belief honestly, genuinely, and sincerely, without collusion or fraud.

The California Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeal.  It held:

We conclude section 377.60 contemplates a subjective standard that focuses on the alleged putative spouse’s state of mind to determine whether he or she maintained a genuine and honest belief in the validity of the marriage.  Good faith must be judged on a case-by-case basis in light of all the relevant facts, such as the efforts made to create a valid marriage, the alleged putative spouse’s background and experience, and the circumstances surrounding the marriage, including any objective evidence of the marriage’s invalidity.  Under this standard, the reasonableness of the claimed belief is a factor properly considered along with all other circumstances in assessing the genuineness of that belief.  The good faith inquiry, however, does not call for application of a reasonable person test, and a belief in the validity of a marriage need not be objectively reasonable.