A putative marriage is a marriage that appears to be valid and is entered into in good faith on the part of at least one of the partners, but is legally invalid due to a technical impediment. The most common impediment to a marriage is an earlier undissolved marriage. In other cases, a marriage may be putative if it is between close relatives, underage persons, or people who are incapable of entering into a marriage contract because of mental incompetence. In some cases, a putative marriage has been created if problems arise with the couple’s marriage license, like forgetting to file it. If the putative spouse discovers the impediment and the couple undertakes steps to legalize their marriage within a reasonable period of time, then their marriage may be found valid. In some cases where the parties have a long union that both parties honestly believed was a valid marriage, a court may refuse to declare the marriage invalid and require a divorce to end the marriage. Although California law does not recognize a putative marriage as valid, it does have protections in place for the innocent spouse.
Good faith is an essential element of a putative marriage. Good faith means a bona fide belief that the parties can marry lawfully or were married lawfully. If the spouse becomes aware of the legal impediment to the marriage, then the question becomes how reasonable it is for the spouse to ignore the information and not investigate further.
A putative spouse is different than a statutory spouse, a common-law spouse, or a ceremonial marriage spouse, in that a putative spouse is not legally married. If the putative spouse can establish that they had a good faith believe that their marriage was valid, then they are entitled to certain protections under California law.
In 1994, the California legislature amended the putative marriage law to allow putative spouses to divide property acquired during the putative marriage. Under a traditional divorce, property acquired during the course of a marriage is considered community property. However, because a putative marriage is not considered valid under the California law, the property is considered “quasi-marital property.” With quasi-marital property, one-half of the property belongs to the putative spouse, and one-half belongs to the legal community. The share that belongs to the legal community is distributed to the legal spouse and the common spouse like any other community property. In other words, the legal community property, which is half of the marital property, is again divided so that the putative spouse receives half and the other spouse receives half. As a result, the putative spouse will receive three-quarters of the property acquired during marriage.
In the event putative spouses have children together California family law applies. Child custody and support will be determined under California law, as they would in a valid marriage. If the parties are unable to come to an agreement amongst themselves, they can utilize the legal system, taking advantage of the traditional litigation path or using the alternative dispute resolution options offered.
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