Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Wednesday, April 20, 2011


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Appellate Court Adopts Subjective Putative Spouse Test




A woman who claims she did not know that the man she married was already married to someone else, until after the man died, may sue for wrongful death as a putative spouse if she subjectively believed that he was single, the Sixth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.

Presiding Justice Conrad Rushing, writing for the court, said a 1988 Court of Appeal ruling, which applied an objective reasonableness test, was wrongly decided. The panel overturned a summary judgment in favor of Rudolph & Sletten, Inc., the defendant in an action based on a 2007 work-related accident in which Robert Ceja was killed.

Nancy Ceja filed a wrongful death action, claiming standing under Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 377.60(b). The statute permits a person who entered into a void or voidable marriage with the decedent, and who “believed in good faith that the marriage...was valid,” to sue as a putative spouse.

The defendant moved for summary judgment, contending that Nancy Ceja lacked the requisite good faith belief in the validity of her marriage.

The moving papers noted that Nancy Ceja had used her husband’s divorce papers to obtain beneficiary status in his union’s insurance plan in 2004. Those papers showed that Robert and Christine Ceja’s divorce judgment was entered in December 2003, and that the divorce did not become final until later, even though Nancy and Robert Ceja had a large church wedding in September 2003.

There was also evidence that Robert and Nancy Ceja were already living together when he filed for divorce and that the two women saw each other at various events involving Robert and Christine Ceja’s children.

Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Mary Jo Levinger, applying the objective test of In re Marriage of Vryonis (1988) 202 Cal.App.3d 712, found that Nancy Ceja could not have believed in good faith that her marriage was valid.

Rushing, however, concluded that it was the plaintiff’s subjective belief that was controlling, and that there were triable issues of fact as to whether she actually believed she was legally married. California, he noted, has long recognized the putative spouse doctrine in a number of contexts.

During the years that California law provided for an interlocutory divorce decree, followed by a one-year waiting period before the divorce became final, for example, it was held that a spouse who remarried without waiting the year might qualify as a putative spouse based on ignorance of the rule, the jurist noted.

The case law from that period, Rushing explained, shows that “courts treated putative status as a factual question concerning a party’s state of mind: did he or she honestly and genuinely believe that the marriage was valid.”

The presiding justice continued:

“The answer hinged in large part on the credibility of the alleged putative spouse. And in determining credibility, courts also considered the circumstances surrounding the putative marriage and the person’s level of education, marital experience, intelligence, and even the conduct after the putative marriage. If the trial court found that a party harbored a good faith belief, and if there was substantial evidence to support it, the reviewing court upheld the finding of putative status.”

The objective reasonableness required by Vryonis-which held that a visiting Iranian professor at UCLA could not have reasonably believed that she was married to a non-practicing Christian based on a private Muslim ceremony that she performed herself, particularly after he rejected her later request that they be married in a mosque—“lacks any supportive authority,” Rushing said.

The Legislature, he went on to say, did not intend to change the traditional definition of a putative spouse as one with a good faith, subjective belief in the validity of a marriage when it incorporated the concept into the wrongful death statute. “In our view, the Vryonis court intruded upon the Legislature’s prerogative,” he said.

Rushing went on to acknowledge that even though the trial court applied the wrong standard, its decision would have to be affirmed in the absence of evidence that Nancy Ceja honestly believed she and Robert Ceja were married.

There is, however, sufficient evidence on that issue to survive summary judgment, the jurist concluded. He cited Nancy Ceja’s declaration, in which she explained that she did not give a close read to her marriage license—which included Robert Ceja’s misrepresentation that he had never been married—nor did she closely examine the divorce papers that she sent to his union and which contained the actual date of the divorce.

Had she realized that he was not divorced when they married, she said, she would have insisted on a remarriage after the divorce became final.

The case is Ceja v. Rudolph & Sletten, Inc., H034826.


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