Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Friday, June 21, 2013


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Supreme Court Adopts Subjective Putative Spouse Test


By a MetNews Staff Writer


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 California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

The justices unanimously affirmed a Sixth District Court of Appeal ruling that allows Nancy Ceja to sue over the 2007 on-the-job death of Robert Ceja, a 39-year-old ironworker from San Jose. Both appellate courts said an earlier case relied on by the trial judge, requiring that the putative spouse’s belief in the validity of the marriage be objectively reasonable, misconstrued the relevant statute.

Nancy Ceja filed a wrongful death action against Rudolph & Sletten, Inc., 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 could not have reasonably believed that she was lawfully married, as required by In re Marriage of Vryonis (1988) 202 Cal.App.3d 712.

The moving papers noted that Nancy Ceja had used Robert Ceja’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.

Nancy Ceja responded 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.

Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Mary Jo Levinger, applying Vryonis, found that Nancy Ceja could not have believed in good faith that her marriage was valid.

Vryonis 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.

But Vryonis was the first California case to apply an objective standard to the putative-spouse inquiry, Baxter said, and the cases that have followed have accepted that standard without independent analysis.

The Vryonis court, he opined, overreached by relying on criminal and contract law principles to arrive at its conclusion.

“Although an objective test has been found appropriate in those contexts, such a test is at odds with the precodification putative spouse decisions holding good faith is a factual inquiry that assesses a party’s credibility and state of mind in light of all the circumstances at issue, including the party’s personal background and experience,” Baxter reasoned. “Indeed, a reasonable person test would make it markedly more difficult to extend the civil benefits of marriage to those parties most in need of the putative spouse doctrine and its protection, namely, those innocents whose youth, inexperience, or lack of education or sophistication contributed to an honest belief in the validity of their marriages.”

In adopting Sec. 377.60, after Vryonis was decided, the justice opined, the Legislature grafted the traditional definition of a putative spouse into the wrongful death statute. He rejected the defense argument that lawmakers must have intended to graft the objective standard into the wrongful death statute.

“[T]he Legislature’s failure to respond to that Court of Appeal decision is not persuasive evidence of the implicit approval of the decision’s reasonable person test, given the decades of previous California Supreme Court and other Court of Appeal decisions evaluating the good faith requirement pursuant to a purely subjective standard,” Baxter wrote. “Indeed, it would be just as logical to infer that the Legislature, if it considered the matter at all, might simply have acquiesced in the understanding that the reasonableness of an alleged putative spouse’s belief is properly considered as one factor informing the good faith inquiry, and that courts will continue to refine the putative spouse doctrine and self-correct when appropriate.”

The subjective good-faith test, he went on to explain, allows the trial court to “consider the totality of the circumstances, including the efforts made to create a valid marriage, the alleged putative spouse’s personal background and experience, and all the circumstances surrounding the marriage,” including the putative spouse’s reaction to objective facts suggesting the marriage was invalid.

The case is Ceja v. Rudolph & Sletten, Inc., 13 S.O.S. 3132.


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