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Nancy Ceja et al v. Rudolph & Sletten

April 19, 2011


Trial Court: Santa Clara County Superior Court Superior Court Nos.: CV112520 and CV115283 Trial Judge: The Honorable

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


(Santa Clara County Super. Ct. Nos. CV112520 & CV115283)


Nancy and Robert Ceja were married by the pastor of a Pentecostal church in a big wedding ceremony attended by many guests. Four years later, Robert Ceja was killed in an accident at work. Nancy Ceja sued his employer for wrongful death. However, before filing the action, she learned that her marriage was void because the wedding had taken place a few months before Robert Ceja's divorce from his first wife became final. Consequently, to establish her standing to sue, Nancy Ceja alleged that she was a "putative spouse" under Code of Civil Procedure section 377.60, which defines a putative spouse as party to a void or voidable marriage who is found by the court to have "believed in good faith that the marriage . . . was valid."*fn1 (§ 377.60, subd. (b).)

The employer moved for summary judgment claiming that Nancy Ceja did not qualify as a putative spouse. The trial court agreed and granted summary judgment. Applying an objective test for putative status, the court found that it was not objectively reasonable for Nancy Ceja to have believed that her marriage was valid.

We conclude that the court applied the wrong test. Section 377.69 requires only that an alleged putative spouse "believed in good faith" that the marriage was valid. We hold that this language does not establish an objective standard; rather it refers to the alleged putative spouse's state of mind and asks whether that person actually believed the marriage was valid and whether he or she held that belief honestly, genuinely, and sincerely, without collusion or fraud. In so holding, we disagree with In re Marriage of Vryonis (1988) 202 Cal.App.3d 712 (Vryonis), which held that the statutory language incorporates an objective test.

It follows from our holding that the issue before the trial court on summary judgment was not whether there were triable issues of fact concerning whether Nancy Ceja's belief was objectively reasonable. The issue was whether there were triable issues concerning whether Nancy Ceja harbored a good faith belief. Because the record before us reveals a number of disputed facts necessary to resolve that issue, we reverse.


Plaintiff Nancy Ceja appeals from a judgment entered after the trial court granted defendant Rudolph & Sletten, Inc.'s motion for summary judgment.*fn2 She claims the trial court erred in granting the motion on the ground that she lacked standing to sue as a putative spouse. We agree that the court erred and reverse the judgment.


In 1995, Robert married Christine. During their marriage, they had two children. Robert and Christine separated, but they shared custody of the children. In 1999, Robert met Nancy. He told her he was married but separated. In 2001, they started living together, and Robert filed for divorce. During this time, Nancy and Christine saw each other at events involving the children.

On September 24, 2003, Robert and Nancy obtained a marriage license. The form contained areas for personal information, including whether the parties had been married before; how many times; when the marriages ended; and how they ended. Robert and Nancy each put zero for the number of prior marriages. Robert and Nancy signed the form, which included a preprinted declaration that they were "an unmarried man and unmarried woman" and that the information provided was "true to the best of [their] knowledge."

On September 27, 2003, Nancy and Robert were married in a ceremony in San Juan Bautista performed by Andy Salinas, the pastor of a Pentecostal church. According to Nancy, over 250 people attended. Thereafter, Nancy and Robert lived together as husband and wife until his death in 2007.

On November 23, 2003, Robert signed a declaration in support of his petition for dissolution, asserting, among other things, that he and Christine had entered a stipulated judgment concerning property rights. On December 26, 2003, a judgment of dissolution of marriage was entered, and notice was sent to him. The notice warned against marrying before the judgment of dissolution was filed In 2004, Nancy forwarded copies of Robert's divorce papers to his union so that she could be added to his insurance.

On September 19, 2007, Robert was killed in an accident at work.


In moving for summary judgment, defendant claimed that the evidence conclusively negated Nancy's alleged putative status. Defendant noted that (1) they were married before his divorce became final, and therefore, the marriage was bigamous and void (Fam. Code, § 2201, subd. (b) [a bigamous marriage is void or voidable]); (2) before their marriage, Nancy knew that Robert had been married to Christine; (3) both of them signed a marriage license in which Robert falsely represented that he had not been married before; and (4) after the marriage, Nancy sent Robert's divorce papers to the union. Defendant argued that it was not objectively reasonable for Nancy to believe her marriage was valid, that is, a reasonable person, knowing these facts, could not believe in good faith in the validity of the marriage.

In opposition, Nancy declared that she knew Robert had been married to Christine. However, they had separated, and in 2001, she understood that Robert had filed for divorce. She did not know what happened after that because he refused to discuss the subject. Nancy further declared that she did not read the marriage license closely before signing it. Nor did she read Robert's divorce papers closely before forwarding them to his union.

In addition, Nancy declared that after their marriage, she and Robert wore wedding rings, they lived together as husband and wife, they told people they were married, they filed taxes as a married couple, and they shared a bank account. She also adopted Robert's surname. Nancy stated that she always believed their marriage was valid. She averred that if she had doubted its validity before the wedding, she would have postponed it; and after the wedding, if she had discovered the problem, they would have simply gotten remarried.

As noted, the court granted defendant's motion. Relying on Welch v. State of California (2000) 83 Cal.App.4th 1374 (Welch) and Vryonis, supra, 202 Cal.App.3d 712, the court found that Nancy could not qualify as a putative spouse because a belief in the validity of her marriage was not objectively reasonable. Thus, since Nancy lacked standing to sue as a putative spouse, defendant was entitled to judgment.


Summary judgment is granted when a moving party establishes the right to entry of judgment as a matter of law. (§ 437c, subd. (c).) "The purpose of the law of summary judgment is to provide courts with a mechanism to cut through the parties' pleadings in order to determine whether, despite their allegations, trial is in fact necessary to resolve their dispute." (Aguilar v. Atlantic Richfield Co. (2001) 25 Cal.4th 826, 843.)

Summary judgment is a drastic procedure, however, and should be used cautiously so that it is not a substitute for a trial on the merits as a means of determining the facts. (Palma v. U.S. Industrial Fasteners, Inc. (1984) 36 Cal.3d 171, 183.) "Upon a motion in summary judgment, the controlling question before the trial court is whether there is a material issue of fact to be tried. If the trial court determines there is one, it is powerless to proceed further. The issue must be decided in trial by the finder of fact." (Haskell v. Carli (1987) 195 Cal.App.3d 124, 132; see also Brown v. Bleiberg (1982) 32 Cal.3d 426, 436, fn. 7.) On appeal from a summary judgment, an appellate court "review[s] the record de novo, considering all the evidence set forth in the moving and opposition papers except that to which objections have been made and sustained." (Guz v. Bechtel National, Inc. (2000) 24 Cal.4th 317, 334.)


To explain our analysis and conclusion concerning the standard for determining putative status, we consider it helpful to review the origin and development of the putative spouse doctrine (the doctrine).

In California, the doctrine first arose as a judicially recognized equitable corollary of the community property system, which California inherited from Spanish civil law and formally adopted by statute in 1850. (See Comment, Husband and Wife: Rights of Bigamous Wife in Community Property (1920-1921) 9 Cal. L.Rev. 68, 68-71; Comment, Domestic Relations: Rights and remedies of the Putative Spouse (1949) 37 Cal. Law.Rev. 671, 672; Rajan, The Putative Spouse in California Law (2000) 11 J. Contemp. Legal Issues 95, 97; Carlson, Putative Spouses in Texas Courts (2000) 7 Tex. Wesleyan L.Rev. 1, 3-4 [discussing origin of the doctrine in Spanish law]; 11 Witkin, Summary of California Law (10th ed. 2005) Community Property, § 1, p. 529.)

The community property system rests on the concept that marriage is a partnership, and the property and earnings acquired during a valid marriage are the property of both partners in equal shares. (Packard v. Arellanes (1861) 17 Cal. 525, 537; In re Marriage of Bonds (2000) 24 Cal.4th 1, 12.) The putative spouse doctrine extends this partnership concept to innocent parties of an invalid marriage. Thus, in Vallera v. Vallera (1943) 21 Cal.2d 681 (Vallera), the Supreme Court considered it "well settled that a woman who lives with a man as his wife in the belief that a valid marriage exists, is entitled upon termination of their relationship to share in the property acquired by them during its existence." (Id. at p. 683.) The purpose of the doctrine is to protect the expectations of innocent parties and achieve results that are equitable, fair, and just. (Coats v. Coats (1911) 160 Cal. 671, 675; Schneider v. Schneider (1920) 183 Cal. 335, 336-338 (Schneider); Caldwell v. Odisio (1956) 142 Cal.App.2d 732, 736.)*fn4

The doctrine is typically applied to distribute quasi-marital property at the end of a putative marriage. The doctrine has also been recognized in a number of related contexts, for example, in determining (1) the interest of a putative spouse in a decedent's property (Feig v. Bank of Italy etc. Ass'n. (1933) 218 Cal. 54); (2) the right to statutory benefits upon the death of a police officer (Adduddell v. Board of Administration (1970) 8 Cal.App.3d 243); and (3) the applicability of the rule of imputed contributory negligence applied (Caldwell v. Odisio, supra, 142 Cal.App.2d 732). The doctrine has also expanded beyond putative spouses to putative domestic partners. (In re Domestic Partnership of Ellis (2008) 162 Cal.App.4th 1000; but see Velez v. Smith (2006) 142 Cal.App.4th 1154, 1172-1174 [doctrine not applicable to domestic partnership law].)

Codification of the Judicial Doctrine

In 1969, the Legislature codified the doctrine in former Civil Code section 4452, which was then part of the new, now former, Family Law Act. (Former Civ. Code § 4400 et seq.; Stats. 1969, ch. 1608, § 8, p. 3314.) That section provided, in relevant part, "Whenever 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 declare such party or parties to have the status of a putative spouse . . . ." (See Stats. 1969, ch. 1608, § 8, pp. 3322-3323.) This particular provision authorized the equal distribution of property acquired during the putative marriage. (Former Civ. Code, §§ 4452, 4455, 4800; see In re Marriage of Monti (1982) 135 Cal.App.3d 50, 54-55 (Monti) [discussing adoption of the former Family Law Act]; Luther & Luther, Support and Property Rights of the Putative Spouse (1973) 24 Hastings L.J. 311, 311-319.) In codifying the doctrine, the Legislature simply adopted existing case law and did not intend to change the definition of a putative spouse or restrict application of the doctrine. (Monti, supra, 135 Cal.App.3d at p. 55; Vryonis, supra, 202 Cal.App.3d at p. 719 [codification "was merely declaratory of existing law and not intended to work significant substantive changes"]; see In re Marriage of Xia Guo and Xiao Hua Sun (2010) 186 Cal.App.4th 1491, 1500 [purpose of codification was same as equitable purpose of the judicially created doctrine]; see also, County of Los Angeles v. Frisbie (1942) 19 Cal.2d 634, 644 [intent to overthrow "long-established principles of law" not presumed from new enactments unless such a legislative intent is expressed or necessarily implied].)

In 1992, the Legislature repealed the former Family Law Act and enacted the Family Code, in which section 2251 reiterates the former Family Law Act provision concerning putative spouses. ...

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