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Ceja v. Rudolph & Sletten, Inc.

Supreme Court of California

June 20, 2013

NANCY CEJA, Plaintiff and Appellant,
RUDOLPH & SLETTEN, INC., Defendant and Respondent.

Court: Superior County Nos. CV112520 & CV115283, Santa Clara Judge: Mary Jo Levinger

The Arns Law Firm, Robert S. Arns, Jonathan E. Davis, Steven R. Weinmann and Kevin M. Osborne for Plaintiff and Appellant.

Grace Ganz Blumberg as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Plaintiff and Appellant.

LeClairRyan, Robert G. Harrison, Gary P. Simonian; Rankin, Sproat, Mires, Beaty & Reynolds, Michael R. Reynolds and Lisa T. Ungerer for Defendant and Respondent.


Section 377.60 of the Code of Civil Procedure[1] provides that a wrongful death action may be brought by a decedent’s “putative spouse” if he or she was dependent on the decedent. (§ 377.60, subd. (b).) The statute defines a putative spouse as “the surviving spouse of a void or voidable marriage who is found by the court to have believed in good faith that the marriage to the decedent was valid.” (Ibid. [italics added].) In question here is the meaning of the phrase in italics. Is the good faith inquiry a purely subjective one, or does the inquiry also require application of an objective test?

We conclude section 377.60 contemplates a subjective standard that focuses on the alleged putative spouse’s state of mind to determine whether he or she maintained a genuine and honest belief in the validity of the marriage. Good faith must be judged on a case-by-case basis in light of all the relevant facts, such as the efforts made to create a valid marriage, the alleged putative spouse’s background and experience, and the circumstances surrounding the marriage, including any objective evidence of the marriage’s invalidity. Under this standard, the reasonableness of the claimed belief is a factor properly considered along with all other circumstances in assessing the genuineness of that belief. The good faith inquiry, however, does not call for application of a reasonable person test, and a belief in the validity of a marriage need not be objectively reasonable.

Factual and Procedural Background

On September 19, 2007, Robert Ceja (decedent) was killed in an accident at a construction site. Nancy Ceja (plaintiff) filed this wrongful death action against Rudolph & Sletten, Inc. (defendant), claiming she was the putative spouse of decedent. (§ 377.60, subd. (b).) Defendant filed an answer alleging multiple affirmative defenses, including one challenging plaintiff’s standing to bring this action as a putative spouse. The parties engaged in discovery, which produced the following evidence.

Decedent and Christina Ceja[2] were wed in 1995. When decedent met plaintiff in 1999, he told plaintiff he was married but separated. In 2001, decedent filed a petition for dissolution of his marriage to Christina, and he started living with plaintiff.

In September 2003, plaintiff and decedent filled out a license and certificate of marriage. The completed document was marked “0” in the space for listing decedent’s “number of previous marriages” and was left blank in two other spaces asking how and when any previous marriage had been terminated. Despite knowing of decedent’s marriage to Christina, plaintiff signed the “Affidavit” box in the document indicating its contents were “correct and true to the best of our knowledge and belief.” A license to marry was issued to plaintiff and decedent on September 24, 2003.

It turns out decedent was still married to Christina when he and plaintiff held their wedding ceremony three days later, on September 27, 2003. On December 31, 2003, the Santa Clara County Superior Court filed a “Notice of Entry of Judgment” and mailed it to the home of plaintiff and decedent. The notice stated that a judgment for dissolution of the marriage between decedent and Christina had been entered on December 26, 2003, and that the judgment was effective as of the date the judgment was filed. The notice also contained a statement — which appeared in a separate box and was printed in bold type — warning that “[n]either party may remarry until the effective date of the termination of marital status.” In January 2004, plaintiff faxed a copy of this court document to decedent’s ironworkers union so she could be added to decedent’s medical insurance. Decedent’s fatal accident occurred over three years later.

As relevant here, defendant moved for summary judgment, contending plaintiff lacked standing to sue for wrongful death as a putative spouse because she did not have the requisite “good faith belief” that her marriage to decedent was valid. Defendant’s motion was based on the following undisputed material facts: (1) plaintiff and decedent were married before the dissolution of his marriage to Christina became final, rendering decedent’s marriage to plaintiff bigamous and void; (2) although plaintiff knew of decedent’s previous marriage, she signed a marriage license in which decedent falsely represented he had not been married before; and (3) the court document plaintiff faxed to decedent’s union clearly indicated his marriage to Christina was not dissolved until after his wedding with plaintiff.

In opposing the motion, plaintiff argued there were triable issues of material fact regarding her status as a putative spouse. She submitted a declaration claiming, among other things, that she understood decedent had filed for “divorce” in 2001, [3] but that she did not know what happened after that because decedent would never discuss the subject. Plaintiff “did not read the marriage certificate in any detail and simply signed the document.” She recalled having subsequently faxed a copy of the final divorce papers to the ironworkers union to confirm decedent’s final dissolution of marriage, but she “[did] not recall looking specifically at the papers before sending them.” Although plaintiff was “unclear on the specific date” of the dissolution, she “absolutely knew” decedent was “divorced from Christina” at the time she faxed the court document and at the time of his accident. Following their well-attended marriage ceremony, plaintiff held herself out as decedent’s wife “to all persons at all times.” She changed her last name to Ceja, and the two of them wore wedding rings, shared a joint checking account, lived together in the same house as husband and wife, and handled their taxes as married but filing separately. Plaintiff would not have had her wedding on September 27, 2003, had she not believed she would have a legal and valid marriage to decedent. Had she realized at any time that her marriage was invalid, she and decedent “would have simply redone the ceremony.”

The trial court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment. Consistent with In re Marriage of Vryonis (1988) 202 Cal.App.3d 712 (Vryonis), the court applied an objective test for putative spouse status and found the undisputed material facts established that plaintiff did not have an ...

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