On May 8, the California Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that will determine whether an individual possesses marital rights, including the right to sue for the wrongful death of a spouse, when they are believe that their marriage is legally sound, but have not taken all the technical steps to ensure that their marriage is recognized under state law.
The couple was not legally married because husband’s divorce was finalized months after their ceremony, but held themselves out as a married couple.
The case involves a Silicon Valley couple who where married in the fall of 2003, before their family and friends in a large church wedding. Prior to the ceremony, the couple secured a marriage license from the state of California. During the course of their marriage, the couple held themselves out as husband and wife.
Four years into the marriage, the husband was killed in a tragic accident while working for a local constriction company. His wife initiated a wrongful death action against her husband’s employer. The employer argued that she did not have the right to sue because the couple was not legally married. This argument was based on the fact that the husband’s divorce from his first wife was not finalized until several months after the couple had tied the knot.
The wife maintains that she believed the marriage to be valid. She cites the couples large wedding, the fact that she took her husband’s last name, and that she helped take care of his two children from the previous marriage. In court documents, she explained that if the couple had known that their marriage was invalid, they would have taken the steps to become legally recognized as a married couple.
An appellate court found that a spouse possesses the legal right to file for wrongful death of their husband, so long as they genuinely believed the marriage was valid; Supreme Court seems likely to agree.
The trial court handling the wrongful death action agreed with the employer and barred the wife from pursuing the wrongful death action. But, the ruling was reversed on appeal. According to the appellate court, the wife was entitled to file the wrongful death action so long as she “honestly and genuinely” believed the marriage was valid. The employer sought a ruling from the State’s Supreme Court. The argue that that appellate court’s reasoning would lead to poor public policy because wouldn’t trouble themselves with ensuring that they have taken all the appropriate steps to become legally married.
During arguments in the case, the Justices seemed reluctant to strip the wife of her legal rights as a married woman. They expressed that taking such a position would punish individuals who acted under “honest and sincere” belief that they were married. In addition, they stated that such a ruling would contradict the putative spouse doctrine, which protects the financial and property interests of an individual who enters a marriage believing it to be valid. According to one justice, the purpose of such a doctrine is to protect the expectations of innocent parties.
The California Supreme Court has 90 days to issue a ruling in this case.
If you are considering filing for divorce, you should contact an CA family law attorney immediately. An attorney can help ensure that your legal rights are protected during the divorce process.