Monday, November 30, 2009
C.A.: Man Who Knew Marriage Was Void Entitled to Property Share
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The right to a division of property acquired during a putative marriage is not limited to an “innocent” spouse, the Sixth District Court of Appeal ruled Wednesday.
The justices affirmed a Santa Cruz Superior Court judge’s ruling granting Pablo Tejeda a community property interest in real properties acquired by Petra Tejeda during the period of the parties’ union of more than 30 years.
According to testimony, the Tejedas had a 1972 wedding in Las Vegas, but Pablo Tejeda was married to Margarita Tejeda at the time. He obtained a divorce from her in 1976, and in 1988 he and Petra Tejeda—the parents of five children—again recited marriage vows, in a Mexican church.
In 2006, Pablo Tejeda filed for divorce from Petra Tejeda. Petra Tejeda initially filed a response joining in the request to dissolve the marriage, but later amended it to request an annulment and confirmation of all property in her possession as separate property.
In briefs filed with the trial court, Pablo Tejeda asserted that he believed his marriage to Petra Tejeda was legal. Petra Tejeda responded that Pablo Tejeda told her prior to their wedding that he was divorced, and that she did not know otherwise prior to 2006.
She argued that she was not seeking putative spouse status, and therefore that Family Code Sec. 2251 did not apply.
The statute provides in part:
“If a determination is made that a marriage is void or voidable and the court finds that either party or both parties believed in good faith that the marriage was valid, the court shall...[d]eclare the party or parties to have the status of a putative spouse [and] divide, in accordance with Division 7 (commencing with Section 2500), that property acquired during the union which would have been community property or quasi-community property if the union had not been void or voidable.”
Superior Court Judge Irwin Joseph ruled that under the plain language of the statute, as long as at least one of the parties believed the marriage to be valid, there was a putative marriage and it made no difference which party was asking for a division of the property.
Petra Tejeda’s belief that her putative husband was single prior to their wedding, reinforced by her filing joint tax returns, listing herself as married on immigration forms, taking her putative husband’s surname, and obtaining medical and social security benefits as his spouse were sufficient to establish a putative marriage and thus the applicability of Sec. 2251, the judge ruled. He ordered the marriage annulled, reserved jurisdiction to divide the property, and certified the matter for immediate appeal.
Justice Richard McAdams, writing Wednesday for the appellate court, said the trial judge was correct.
“The language of the governing statute is clear and unambiguous,” the justice wrote. “...What Petra [Tejeda] fails to acknowledge...is that once either party is a putative spouse, the union is a putative marriage....Thus, even where only one party has the requisite good faith belief in the validity of the marriage, thereby qualifying as the sole putative spouse, the court’s declaration of his or her status operates as a declaration that the union itself is a putative marriage.”
McAdams rejected the argument that since other code provisions permit a putative spouse to obtain support or attorney fees in a nullity proceeding only if he or she lacked knowledge that the marriage was void or voidable, the Legislature must not have intended to allow a putative spouse who had such knowledge to obtain a division of property.
The justice, noting that the statutory language had been substantially unchanged since it was adopted as part of the “no-fault” Family Law Act, reasoned that by denying some forms of relief to “guilty” putative spouses, the Legislature was inferring that other types of relief, including property division, remained available.
He concluded that “[d]isregarding guilt and innocence in property division also serves to support the purposes of the Family Law Act,” which eliminated the concept of fault with respect to issues of dissolution, support and property division.
The case is In re Marriage of Tejeda, H033001.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company