What This Case Means to You! Putative Spouse


Fourth in a series of case reviews by Russell H. Thaw

Ceja v. Rudolph & Sletten, Inc. (2013) 56 Cal.4th 1113, 158 Cal.Rptr.3d 21, 302 P.3d 211, wherein the California Supreme Court announces a new standard for the finding of “Putative Spouse” status.

FACTS: Nancy and Robert Ceja were married in a church ceremony. Four years later, Robert was killed in a work-related accident. Before Nancy could sue Robert’s employer for wrongful death, she learned the marriage was void because the wedding had taken place a few months before Robert’s divorce from his first wife was final. Robert’s employer moved for summary judgment, claiming Nancy did not qualify as a putative spouse. The trial court agreed and granted summary judgment in favor of Robert’s employer. In applying an objective test for the finding of putative status, the trial court found it was not objectively reasonable for Nancy to have believed her marriage was invalid. A California appeals court reversed the trial court and the California supreme court affirmed the court of appeal.

The Supreme Court held that Code of Civil Procedure, §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. In doing so, the Supreme Court rejected the holding of In re Marriage of Vryonis (1988) 202 Cal.App.3d 712, 248 Cal.Rptr. 807, which held that an objective test should apply. In overturning Vryonis, the Supreme Court stated the fundamental purpose of the putative spouse doctrine is to protect the expectations of innocent parties and to achieve results that are equitable, fair and just. To effectuate that purpose, courts must apply the doctrine only when the alleged putative spouse’s belief in the validity of a marriage was found to have been “genuine”. By recognizing putative spouse status in cases of genuine, bona fide or honestly-held beliefs, courts must adhere to the commonly understood meaning of “good faith”, i.e., a state of mind denoting honesty of purpose and freedom from intention to defraud. In ordinary usage, the phrase “good faith” is commonly understood as referring to a subjective state of mind.

I have often been confused by the semantics of “objective” versus “subjective” tests regarding a person’s state of mind and the Ceja case is worth reading for its explanation of the difference. Just what does it mean that the alleged putative spouse “subjectively believed” that she was married? How did an “objective” test result in a different outcome than a “subjective” test?

Here’s how it works: If an “objective” test is applied to the facts in Ceja, as was done by the trial court (because that was the prevailing standard of the day as found in the Vryonis case), then it is THE JUDGE’S OPINION whether the facts support Nancy Ceja’s contention she believed she was married to Robert. If a “subjective” test is applied, then the Court must decide whether NANCY HONESTLY BELIEVED she was married to Robert. Now here’s the rub, and the thing that makes it so confusing – – what test is applied to determine if NANCY honestly believed she was married to Robert? You guessed it – an objective test.

To put it into plain words, the Supreme Court decided that in order to find putative spouse status, the trial court must determine if the party claiming putative status held an HONEST subjective belief that he/she was married. How do you determine if Nancy’s belief was honest? This way: it is not whether I (the Judge) believe the facts, but whether I (the Judge) believe NANCY’S BEHAVIOR demonstrates she believes the facts which determines the outcome.

The Supreme Court decided that Nancy honestly believed she was married to Robert, so she was allowed to sue and collect damages against Robert’s employer for wrongful death. In doing so, the Supreme Court not only overturned the trial court, but also disapproved the holding of In Re Marriage of Vryonis, thus, providing a new test regarding putative spouse status in California. For Nancy, that new test made all the difference.

And that is what this case means to you.

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