If a marriage is invalid as the result of some legal infirmity, an innocent spouse, under the putative marriage doctrine, may nevertheless be entitled to other orders in addition to the decree of nullity. In other words, the person who is unknowingly in an invalid marriage may be able to receive spousal support and establish a community interest in property acquired during the relationship.
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California Putative Spouse
To be deemed a California putative spouse one spouse must have had a good faith belief that the marriage was legally valid. The “good faith belief” required refers to an alleged putative spouse’s subjective state of mind, and is not based on a “reasonable person” standard. However, the reasonableness or unreasonableness of a party’s belief in the face of objective circumstances pointing to a marriage’s invalidity is a factor properly considered as part of the totality of the circumstances in determining whether the belief was genuinely and honestly held.
For a court to address one party’s claim that they are a California putative spouse, the party must meet any requirements for the exercise of personal jurisdiction. Additionally, child custody jurisdiction must be met before the court may grant any additional orders regarding any child from the relationship.
It may be that in limited circumstances a party who does not qualify as a California putative spouse because he or she knew that the marriage was invalid can, nevertheless, be awarded, on the basis of estoppel, relief normally available only to a putative spouse.
If a California court finds that a marriage is void or voidable and that either party or both parties believed in good faith that the marriage was valid, the court must declare the party or parties to have the status of a California putative spouse. The California appellate courts disagree on whether only the innocent spouse can rely on the status of a putative spouse.
The California Supreme Court summarized the test for a California putative spouse, which is: “The good faith inquiry is a subjective one that focuses on the actual state of mind of the alleged putative spouse. While there is no requirement that the claimed belief be objectively reasonable, good faith is a relative quality and depends on all the relevant circumstances, including objective circumstances. In determining good faith, the trial court must 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. Although the claimed belief need not pass a reasonable person test, the reasonableness or unreasonableness of one’s belief in the face of objective circumstances pointing to a marriage’s invalidity is a factor properly considered as part of the totality of the circumstances in determining whether the belief was genuinely and honestly held.”
California Putative Spouse Support
A party found to be a California putative spouse may be awarded support from the other party, both during the pendency of a nullity proceeding and in a judgment of nullity, as if the marriage had not been void or voidable.
If division of property is in issue, a California court will designate property that would otherwise have been the spouses’ community or quasi-community property as “quasi-marital property” and will divide the property as if the union had not been void or voidable—that is, according to the rules applicable to division of property in a dissolution proceeding.
A California putative spouse also has intestate succession rights to the same extent as a surviving spouse and can claim ownership in property in the same manner as would be asserted by a spouse.
However, a California putative spouse is not entitled to a family allowance. In addition, if the decedent is survived both by a surviving spouse and a putative spouse, the application of equitable principles may result in the putative spouse’s only being entitled to his or her one-half of the quasi-marital property, leaving the decedent’s one-half to pass by will or intestate succession.
Under appropriate circumstances, the California putative spouse may be able to successfully assert that the surviving spouse is estopped from challenging the validity of the putative spouse’s marriage to the decedent.
A person with a good faith belief in the validity of his or her registered domestic partnership is entitled to protection as a California putative registered domestic partner, even if the domestic partnership was not properly registered. However, even though domestic partners are generally afforded the same property rights as spouses, there is conflicting authority as to whether domestic partners who fail to properly register can be considered putative spouses.
Quasi-marital property is property acquired by parties to an invalid marriage that would have been community or quasi-community property had the marriage been valid, as long as either party qualifies as a putative spouse. Either party to an invalid marriage who had a good faith belief in the validity of the marriage may be treated as a “California putative spouse” and claim an interest in the property acquired during marriage that would have been characterized as community property if the marriage had been valid. The courts are split on whether a party who claims California putative spouse status may do so on the basis that it was the other party only who held a good faith belief in the validity of the marriage. If a California putative spouse claim is upheld, the property acquired during the invalid marriage is considered “quasi-marital” property and is treated like community property in an annulment or estate proceeding. By extension, these quasi-marital-property principles should also apply to “putative domestic partners.”
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