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In re Tejeda

November 25, 2009


(Santa Cruz County Super. Ct. No. FL024594). Trial Judge: Honorable Irwin Joseph.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: McAdams, J.


This case requires us to construe Family Code section 2251.*fn1 Subject to the requirements of that provision, a marriage that is invalid due to a legal infirmity may be recognized as a putative marriage. Property acquired during a putative marriage (quasi-marital property) is divided as if it were community property.

In this case, the parties‟ marriage was invalid because respondent already had a wife when he married appellant. The trial court declared appellant a putative spouse.

She appeals the judgment of nullity, challenging the determination that property acquired in her name during the union is quasi-marital property.

Applying the unambiguous language of section 2251, we conclude that the parties‟ union is a putative marriage and that the property acquired during that union is quasi-marital property subject to division as community property. We therefore affirm the judgment.


In 1973, appellant Petra Tejeda (Petra) and respondent Pablo Tejeda (Pablo) were married in Las Vegas. At the time of the marriage ceremony, and unbeknownst to Petra, Pablo was married to Margarita Rivera Tejeda (Margarita). In 1975, Pablo petitioned to dissolve his marriage to Margarita, and a judgment of dissolution was entered the following year. In 1988, Pablo and Petra participated in a marriage ceremony in a Mexican church, unaccompanied by any civil formalities.

The parties‟ union lasted more than thirty years. During this time, Petra and Pablo had five children together. Petra began acquiring real property in 1994, taking title in her name, together with other relatives, but not with Pablo.


In March 2006, Pablo filed an action to end his union with Petra, petitioning for dissolution in San Benito County. In a response filed in May 2006, Petra likewise requested dissolution of marriage. Thereafter, she amended her response to seek a judgment of nullity of marriage. In October 2007, after the action had been transferred to Santa Cruz County, Petra filed another amended response. As before, Petra requested a judgment of nullity. Petra also requested that all property in her possession be confirmed as her separate property.

In January 2008, the court conducted an evidentiary hearing to determine the validity of the marriage.

Prior to the hearing, the attorneys for both parties submitted written briefing, which included both exhibits and arguments. Petra argued that the union was bigamous and thus void under section 2201. She asserted that Pablo could not demonstrate the requisite reasonable good faith belief in the validity of the marriage required for putative spouse status under section 2251. Petra clarified that she was not seeking putative spouse status for herself. In his trial brief, Pablo asserted his belief that he and Petra were married. In any event, Pablo maintained, "fault" is irrelevant in a putative marriage.

At the hearing, only Petra testified.*fn2 At the time of her 1972 Las Vegas wedding, Petra stated, she did not know that Pablo was still married to Margarita. Pablo told Petra that he was divorced. Petra did not discover the truth until 2006. Up until then, Petra testified, "I thought I was married."

Following Petra‟s testimony, the trial court made an oral finding "that the marriage is either void or voidable because Mr. Tejeda was already married." The court also found that "at all times, Mrs. Tejeda believe[d] that she was married to someone who at the time of their marriage ceremony was single." That belief, the court said, was reaffirmed "by her actions over some period of time" such as filing joint tax returns, confirming her marital status for immigration purposes, taking Pablo‟s name, and using "medical benefits under his insurance, social security benefits under his name."

Given these factual findings, the court concluded, the matter was governed by section 2251, which required the court to "declare the party or parties to have the status of a putative spouse." The property thus was quasi-marital property. The court did not divide the property, observing that there might be defenses to the presumption of equal division, or tracing issues, or other questions concerning characterization.

In June 2008, the court entered a judgment of nullity, which incorporated its earlier determinations. The court found that since "either party (here, specifically Petra Tejeda) or both parties believed in good faith that the marriage was valid," the court was statutorily required to "declare the party or parties to have a status of putative spouse." Under "the mandatory language" of section 2251, the court stated, it was "obligated to find that the property of the parties is quasi-marital . . . property."

This appeal ensued.*fn3


Petra asserts that the "plain language" of section 2251 "is ambiguous, to the extent it is susceptible to the interpretation applied by the Trial Court." As a matter of legislative intent, she argues, the statute should "only be ...

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