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John P. Burnham et al v. California Public Employees' Retirement System

August 31, 2012

JOHN P. BURNHAM ET AL., PLAINTIFFS AND RESPONDENTS,
v.
CALIFORNIA PUBLIC EMPLOYEES' RETIREMENT SYSTEM, DEFENDANT AND RESPONDENT; KATHLEEN S. HONEYMAN, REAL PARTY IN INTEREST AND APPELLANT.



APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Sacramento County, Allen H. Sumner, Judge. (Super. Ct. No. 34201080000624CUWMGDS)

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

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

Affirmed.

This case is about the procedures two individuals must follow to become domestic partners under California law.

James Burnham (Burnham) and real party in interest Kathleen Honeyman (Honeyman) wanted to become domestic partners. On a Saturday morning, they completed a notarized declaration of domestic partnership. Later that afternoon, Burnham died. The following Monday, Honeyman presented the declaration to the Office of the Secretary of State, and the clerk filed it.

Thereafter, Honeyman applied for Burnham's state pension survivor benefits. The administrative board of the state pension system ruled Honeyman was entitled to the benefits, but the trial court held she was not because Honeyman and Burnham were not domestic partners at the time he died. The trial court got it right.

The Legislature by statute has enumerated the requirements for establishing a domestic partnership. The statute states in relevant part, "A domestic partnership shall be established in California when both persons file a Declaration of Domestic Partnership with the Secretary of State . . . , and, at the time of filing . . . [b]oth persons are capable of consenting to the domestic partnership." (Fam. Code,*fn1 § 297.)

Consistent with the language of the statute, we hold that presenting a declaration of domestic partnership for filing with the Secretary of State is a necessary prerequisite for a valid domestic partnership, and at the time of presentation, both individuals to the partnership must be capable of consenting.

Here, because Burnham was deceased when Honeyman presented the declaration of domestic partnership for filing with the Secretary of State, Honeyman and Burnham never became domestic partners. Therefore, Honeyman was not entitled to Burnham's state pension survivor benefits.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Burnham became a member of the California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS) in 1967. He designated his then-wife as his primary beneficiary and his four children, including two of whom are plaintiffs here (John Burnham and James Burnham II) as his secondary beneficiaries. Burnham and his wife later divorced.

After the divorce, Burnham and Honeyman began living together in 1969. Nine years later, Burnham changed his CalPERS primary beneficiary designation to Honeyman. In the change of beneficiary form, Honeyman was listed as Burnham's "friend."

Burnham developed bone-metastasized prostate cancer in 2006. In May, Burnham filed a service retirement election application in which he designated the "Estate of James E. Burnham" as his beneficiary. In July, Burnham retired.

Burnham became extremely ill by October 2007. Honeyman had been caring for him while she was working, but Burnham needed full time care due to the severity of his illness. They both realized Honeyman could take time off work if the two were spouses or domestic partners. So about a week before Burnham ended up dying, Honeyman and Burnham decided to become domestic partners. Burnham and Honeyman signed the declaration of domestic partnership in their house at approximately 9:00 a.m. on Saturday, October 27, 2007, in front of a notary. At 4:30 p.m. Burnham died. He was 67 years old.

The following Monday, October 29, 2007, Honeyman hand delivered the declaration of domestic partnership to the Secretary of State's Office in Fresno. The clerk filed it and the Secretary of State issued Burnham and Honeyman a certificate of registered domestic partnership dated October 29, 2007.

Honeyman applied for Burnham's state pension survivor benefits, which totaled approximately $100,000. CalPERS staff denied her application, reasoning she and Burnham were not registered domestic partners at the time Burnham died. It determined the benefits were properly payable to Burnham's surviving children as Burnham's intestate heirs. Honeyman appealed the CalPERS staff's denial, but an administrative law judge (ALJ) issued a proposed ruling in favor of the CALPERS staff's determination. The CalPERS Board of Administration (the CalPERS board) voted not to adopt the ALJ's proposed ruling and instead decided the matter itself. The CalPERS board decided Honeyman was entitled to the benefits under a putative spouse theory, reasoning Honeyman had a "reasonable good faith belief that registration of the Declaration of Domestic Partnership had validly taken place."

Two of Burnham's children -- plaintiffs John Burnham and James Burnham II -- filed a petition for writ of administrative mandamus challenging the CalPERS board's determination. The trial court granted the writ. In a well-reasoned and thoughtful opinion, the trial court explained Honeyman and Burnham were not domestic partners because Burnham was dead at the time Honeyman filed the declaration, the putative spouse doctrine did not apply because that doctrine protects the expectation of parties who accumulate property over time ...


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