A putative spouse starts with one person in a relationship having a good faith belief that a marriage existed, which would thereby entitle them to certain rights as a spouse such as support and property. To even arrive at the putative spouse issue, first there must exist a valid marriage. One would think this determination is clear cut. However, an all-too-common fact scenario is a private ceremony on the beach in Mexico. Important considerations include who was there attending, who witnessed it, and who eventually solemnized the ceremony, a designated officiant.
Family Code §306 then states, “Except as provided in Section 307, a marriage shall be licensed, solemnized, and authenticated, and the certificate of registry of marriage shall be returned as provided in this part. Noncompliance with this part by a nonparty to the marriage does not invalidate the marriage.
We must also consider the actions leading up to the purported ceremony. We analyze if the parties obtained a marriage license and following the ceremony, had been there an effort to record the license. Certain circumstances may include an effort to record, which gets rejected, and both parties agree to not submit it again. At that point the marriage could still be considered valid although defective based on a technicality. Another fact scenario includes one party believing the other wholeheartedly made efforts to record the certificate, but it was not done so.
Once the Court decides that a marriage has been solemnized, we consider if one party had a good faith belief that they were married. For this reason, we look to California Family Code 2251 which states, “(a) 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: (1) Declare the party or parties to have the status of a putative spouse.” Which means, if one person, believes in good faith that the marriage (albeit ceremonial) was valid, they should have the status of a “putative spouse”.
Putative spouse status, however require that the spouse “believed in good faith that the
marriage was valid ….” (Fam. Code, § 2251, subd. (a); see also Code Civ. Proc., § 377.60,
subd. (b)(2).) i.e., in the past, at the time of marriage. It does not require that the spouse “believe” that the marriage is valid in the present. “The good faith inquiry is a subjective one that focuses on the actual state of mind of the alleged putative spouse…. [T]here is no requirement that the claimed belief be objectively reasonable ….” (Ceja v. Rudolph & Sletten, Inc. (2013) 56 Cal.4th 1113, 1128, 158 Cal.Rptr.3d 21, 302 P.3d 211.)”
The California Supreme Court has opined on this issue. In the matter entitled, In re Marriage of Aviles & Vulovic (2022) 79 Cal.App.5th 694, 294 Cal.Rptr.3d 836, the court defined a party’s good faith belief in a marriage being valid as purely subjective and furthered that to even the putative spouse’s testimony as to belief in the validity of the marriage was “negligent, unreasonable, or ignorant”. the analysis does not only turn on “good faith”, but 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 (Ceja v. Rudolph & Sletten, Inc. (2013) 56 Cal.4th 1113, 158 Cal.Rptr.3d 21). “To summarize, section 377.60(b) defines a putative spouse as “the
surviving spouse of a void or voidable marriage who is found by the court to have believed in good faith that the marriage to the decedent was valid.”
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. 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.
In certain circumstances, the Court considers if the parties held themselves out as husband and wife, commingled their finances, or acquired property together. Any prior marriages by either party are also a determining factor. The party loses putative spouse status the moment the party knows the marriage did not exist considering the totality of the circumstances, and therefore will not receive any of the benefits of a spouse including support and property rights.