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In re Marriage of G.C.

California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, First Division

May 9, 2018

In re the Marriage of G.C. and R.W. G.C., Respondent,
v.
R.W., Appellant.

         CERTIFIED FOR PARTIAL PUBLICATION[*]

          APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Riverside County No. IND1201870, Mickie E. Reed, Temporary Judge. (Pursuant to Cal. Const., art VI, § 21.) Affirmed in part; reversed in part; remanded with directions.

          La Quinta Law Group and Timothy L. Ewanyshyn for Appellant.

          Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith and Lann G. McIntyre for Respondent.

          AARON, J.

         I.

         INTRODUCTION

         R.W. appeals from a judgment of dissolution of his marriage with his former husband, respondent, G.C.[1] R.W. raises numerous claims on appeal, two of which we address in published portions of this opinion. First, R.W. claims that the trial court erred in determining that the parties' date of union was in 2009 when the parties married, rather than in 2004, when they entered into a domestic partnership under New Jersey law. R.W. contends that the parties' New Jersey domestic partnership is "substantially equivalent" (Fam. Code, § 299.2)[2] to a California domestic partnership such that it could be dissolved pursuant to section 299, and thus, that the court should have considered the date of the parties' domestic partnership to be the date of union for purposes of the dissolution. After interpreting the meaning of "substantially equivalent" in section 299.2 as a matter of first impression, we conclude that in light of the limited nature of the rights and obligations that the parties obtained in entering into a domestic partnership under New Jersey law, the trial court properly determined that the parties' 2004 New Jersey domestic partnership was not "substantially equivalent" to a California domestic partnership under section 299.2 so as to permit its dissolution under California law. We therefore conclude that the trial court properly determined that the parties' date of union was in 2009.

         R.W. also claims that the trial court erred in failing to divide equally the appreciation of the value of certain real property that the parties acquired as joint tenants during their marriage, as a community asset. Specifically, R.W. contends that the trial court erred in applying a formula for apportioning separate and community property interests in the value of the appreciation because the joint title community property presumption contained in section 2581 applied to the property, and the appreciation therefore belonged entirely to the community. We agree with R.W. and conclude that the trial court erred in failing to divide the appreciation in value of the marital residence equally.

         We reject the remainder of R.W.'s claims in unpublished portions of the opinion. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment and remand the matter to the trial court with directions to divide the appreciation in value of the marital residence equally as a community asset. In all other respects, we affirm.

         II.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         R.W. and G.C. purchased a home together in New Jersey in 2002. In 2004, the couple entered into a New Jersey domestic partnership. They moved from New Jersey to New York in 2006 and married in Connecticut in 2009.

         R.W. and G.C. purchased a home in California (the "marital residence") in 2011 and moved to California that same year. G.C. filed a form petition for dissolution of marriage the following year.

         After conducting a court trial on the petition, the trial court issued a statement of decision and entered a judgment incorporating that statement. Among other issues, the court determined that the parties' date of marriage was February 6, 2009, the date G.C. and R.W. married in Connecticut. The court also concluded that the parties had separate property interests in the appreciation in the value of the marital residence, in amounts proportional to their separate property contributions to the down payment.[3] The court declined to award R.W. any permanent spousal support or to order that G.C. pay any of R.W.'s attorney fees.[4]

         R.W. appealed from the judgment. While R.W.'s appeal was pending, the trial court issued an amended judgment that incorporated a revised statement of decision. R.W. subsequently filed a second notice of appeal from the amended judgment.

         III.

         DISCUSSION

         A. The Trial Court Properly Determined the Parties' Date of Marriage to be in 2009 Because Their 2004 New Jersey Domestic Partnership was not "Substantially Equivalent" to a California Domestic Partnership Under Section 299.2 so as to Permit its Dissolution Under Section 299

         R.W. claims that the trial court erred in determining that the parties' date of marriage was February 6, 2009, the date that he and G.C. married in Connecticut. He argues that the court should have instead concluded that the operative date of union was August 10, 2004, the date on which he and G.C. entered into a domestic partnership under New Jersey law.

         R.W. contends that the parties' New Jersey domestic partnership is "substantially equivalent" (§ 299.2) to a California domestic partnership, and that the trial court therefore erred in concluding that the 2004 New Jersey domestic partnership was not a valid domestic partnership that could be dissolved under California law. R.W.'s claim turns on the proper interpretation of section 299.2, an issue that we review de novo. (See In re Marriage of Dellaria & Blickman-Dellaria (2009) 172 Cal.App.4th 196, 201 [statutory interpretation claims are reviewed de novo].)

         1. Governing Law

         a. The Relevant Statutes

         Section 297 permits two persons "of the same sex, "[5] to enter a domestic partnership by filing a declaration with the Secretary of State establishing their partnership.[6]

         Section 297.5, subdivision (a) provides that domestic partners shall have the same rights and obligations as spouses:

         "(a) Registered domestic partners shall have the same rights, protections, and benefits, and shall be subject to the same responsibilities, obligations, and duties under law, whether they derive from statutes, administrative regulations, court rules, government policies, common law, or any other provisions or sources of law, as are granted to and imposed upon spouses."

         Section 299, subdivision (d) governs the dissolution of a domestic partnership and provides in relevant part:

         "(d) The superior courts shall have jurisdiction over all proceedings relating to the dissolution of domestic partnerships.... The dissolution of a domestic partnership... shall follow the same procedures, and the partners shall possess the same rights, protections, and benefits, and be subject to the same responsibilities, obligations, and duties, as apply to the dissolution of marriage...."

         Section 299.2 describes the extent to which California law recognizes nonmarital same-sex unions formed in other jurisdictions:

         "A legal union of two persons of the same sex, other than a marriage, that was validly formed in another jurisdiction, and that is substantially equivalent to a domestic partnership as defined in this part, shall be recognized as a valid domestic partnership in this state regardless of whether it bears the name domestic partnership."

         Sections 297, 297.5, 299, and 299.2 were enacted in 2003 as part of The California Domestic Partner Rights and Responsibilities Act (the Act). (Stats. 2003, ch. 421.)[7] The Act, which was adopted in 2003, and took effect January 1, 2005, "extend[ed] the rights and duties of marriage to persons registered as domestic partners on and after January 1, 2005." (Legis. Counsel's Dig., Assem. Bill No. 205 (2003-2004 reg. sess.) Stats. 2003, ch. 421.)

         The Act also enacted section 299.3. Section 299.3 required the Secretary of State to mail a notice to previously registered domestic partners to inform them that California law related to the rights and responsibilities with respect to registered domestic partners was changing in material ways as a result of the adoption of the Act. The letter informed registered partners that they would be subject to the changed law unless they terminated their domestic partnership prior to January 1, 2005.[8]

         b. Principles of Statutory Interpretation

         In Acqua Vista Homeowners Assn. v. MWI, Inc. (2017) 7 Cal.App.5th 1129, 1140 (Acqua Vista), this court restated the following well-established rules of statutory interpretation:

         " ' " 'In construing any statute, "[w]ell-established rules of statutory construction require us to ascertain the intent of the enacting legislative body so that we may adopt the construction that best effectuates the purpose of the law." [Citation.] "We first examine the words themselves because the statutory language is generally the most reliable indicator of legislative intent. [Citation.] The words of the statute should be given their ordinary and usual meaning and should be construed in their statutory context." [Citation.] If the statutory language is unambiguous, "we presume the Legislature meant what it said, and the plain meaning of the statute governs." [Citation.]' [Citation.]

         " ' " 'If, however, the statutory language is ambiguous or reasonably susceptible to more than one interpretation, we will "examine the context in which the language appears, adopting the construction that best harmonizes the statute internally and with related statutes, " and we can " ' "look to a variety of extrinsic aids, including the ostensible objects to be achieved, the evils to be remedied, the legislative history, public policy, contemporaneous administrative construction, and the statutory scheme of which the statute is a part." ' " [Citation.]' [Citation.]

         " ' " ' "We must select the construction that comports most closely with the apparent intent of the Legislature, with a view to promoting rather than defeating the general purpose of the statute, and avoid an interpretation that would lead to absurd consequences." ' " ' "

         2. Factual and Procedural Background

         a. The Parties' Pretrial Pleadings

         G.C. filed a form petition for dissolution of marriage. In his petition, G.C. indicated that the parties had entered into a domestic partnership in 2004 and a marriage in 2009. G.C. checked a box next to the statement, "Our domestic partnership or marriage to a person of the same sex was established in a place other than California and a dissolution is requested." G.C. also checked a box on the form indicating that he was requesting dissolution of the marriage.[9]

         In August 2013, R.W. filed a form response in which he indicated that he sought dissolution of a 2004 domestic partnership and a 2009 marriage.

         In July 2015, R.W. filed a request for order seeking to be granted permission to file an amended response to indicate that the operative date of dissolution was in 2004, rather than in 2009, as stated in the original response, and to provide a list of alleged separate and community property. In his request, R.W. stated that he and G.C. had entered into a registered domestic partnership in New Jersey in 2004. Citing section 299.2, R.W. contended that California recognized the legitimacy of domestic partnerships entered into in other states. R.W. attached a copy of an August 2004 New Jersey certificate of domestic partnership to his request.

         G.C. filed an opposition to the request, and attached a supporting declaration. In his declaration, G.C. stated in relevant part:

         "[R.W.] and I signed an affidavit of New Jersey Domestic Partnership with the City of Long Hill, N.J. town clerk on August 10, 2004. Our primary reason for filing was to preserve our rights to act upon each other's behalf during medical emergencies. Our respective rights to employer-provided benefits were another strong consideration. At the town clerk's office, we were given a copy of the New Jersey Department of Health, Office of Vital Statistics and Registry publication titled NOTICE OF RIGHTS AND OBLIGATIONS OF DOMESTIC PARTNERS, attached hereto as Exhibit A....

         "... At no time did I or [R.W.] consider this to be a marriage as that option was available to us in August 2004 in the state of Massachusetts (since May 2004). When we ultimately did decide to get married in 2009 (five years after we elected domestic partnership), we went to Connecticut to be married."

         G.C. also stated in his declaration that R.W. failed to provide the court with any evidence of New Jersey domestic partnership law that would permit the court to make the determination whether a New Jersey domestic partnership is "substantially equivalent" (§ 299.2) to a California domestic partnership. G.C. further stated:

         "The New Jersey law of domestic partnerships did not offer a right of entitlement to support, or property sharing, when the relationship dissolved. There was no equivalent of alimony, or division of marital assets, for domestic partners. New Jersey law did not include a domestic partner in the intestate succession scheme. A domestic partner was not entitled to an elective share of the other partner's estate. The New Jersey law did not specifically amend the state's tort laws to give domestic partners standing to sue for the injury or death to the other."

         G.C. attached as an exhibit to his declaration a document entitled "Notice of Rights and Obligations of Domestic Partners" (the Notice of Rights) (formatting omitted), issued by the New Jersey Department of Health. Under the heading, "Terminating a Domestic Partnership, " (boldface omitted) the Notice of Rights stated that the Superior Court of New Jersey would have jurisdiction over all proceedings to terminate a domestic partnership and that "[i]n all such proceedings, the court shall in no event be required to effect an equitable distribution of property, either real or personal, which was legally and beneficially acquired by both domestic partners or either domestic partner during the domestic partnership." G.C. also attached the relevant New Jersey statutes governing domestic partnerships.

         The trial court granted R.W.'s request to file an amended response. In his amended response, R.W. sought dissolution of the 2004 domestic partnership. R.W. left unchecked a box next to the statement, "We are married."

         R.W. filed a trial brief in which he indicated that "[t]he date of marriage is disputed." R.W. quoted section 299.2 and contended that "the New Jersey Domestic Partnership created on August 10, 2004, is the operative date of marriage." R.W. did not present any argument or evidence in support of the contention that a New Jersey domestic partnership should be deemed "substantially equivalent" to a California domestic partnership under section 299.2.

         R.W. subsequently filed a request for a statement of decision in which he requested that the court determine the "[d]ate of marriage for purposes of dissolution."

         b. The Trial

         During the trial, G.C. testified that the parties entered into a domestic partnership in New Jersey in August 2004. G.C. stated that he was aware of the legal rights and obligations that entering the domestic partnership created for the parties. G.C. explained his belief that entering the domestic partnership did not provide either party with an interest in the other party's assets or obligations. G.C. stated that he and R.W. moved from New Jersey to New York in 2006, married in Connecticut in 2009, and moved to California in 2011.

         R.W. testified that he and G.C. purchased a house together in 2002, and that they would have married at that time if gay marriage had been legally recognized. R.W. agreed that he and G.C. entered into a domestic partnership in New Jersey in 2004 and that they got married in Connecticut in 2009.

         The court admitted in evidence the parties' 2004 New Jersey Domestic Partnership certificate, a copy of the New Jersey Notice of Rights, and the parties' 2009 Connecticut marriage license.

         c. The trial Court's Ruling

         After the trial, the court issued a proposed statement of decision. The court stated that the parties disputed the proper date of marriage for purposes of the dissolution, with R.W. contending that the date of marriage should be deemed to be in 2004, when the parties entered into a domestic partnership in New Jersey, and G.C. contending that the date of marriage was in 2009, when the parties married in Connecticut. The court further noted that G.C. maintained that "the domestic partnership laws in New Jersey are not 'substantially equivalent' to the domestic partnership laws in California, and therefore the New Jersey domestic partnership should not be recognized in California."

         The court observed that R.W. had not offered any " 'substantial equivalency, ' " arguments, and that "a facial comparison of the domestic partnership laws of New Jersey and California shows that each offers widely differing rights and protections." The court reviewed New Jersey and California law governing domestic partnerships, and noted that while New Jersey law provided "a few select rights" to domestic partners, California law "extends all of the rights and duties of marriage to domestic partners." Accordingly, the court determined that a New Jersey domestic partnership cannot be said to be " 'substantially equivalent, ' " to a California domestic partnership. The court thus concluded that California law did not recognize the 2004 New Jersey domestic partnership under section 299.2. The court further concluded that the proper date of marriage was February 6, 2009, the date on which the parties married in Connecticut.

         R.W. filed a series of objections to the proposed statement of decision. None of the objections pertained to the date of marriage issue. The trial court subsequently entered an amended judgment[10] that incorporated a statement of decision identical to the proposed statement of decision with respect to the date of marriage.

         3. Application

         a. We Reject the Parties' Procedural Arguments

         Before considering the merits of R.W.'s claim, we reject two procedural arguments that the parties raise. First, we reject G.C.'s argument that R.W. forfeited his contention because R.W. did not raise an objection to the trial court's proposed statement of decision with respect to this issue. R.W. clearly raised the issue of the proper date of union for purposes of the dissolution in the trial court, and the issue was fully litigated. G.C. cites no authority, and we are aware of none, that would require a party to reassert an objection to the merits of a trial court's decision by way of an objection to a proposed statement of decision in order to preserve the objection for purposes of an appeal. (Cf. Heaps v. Heaps (2004) 124 Cal.App.4th 286, 292 ["The main purpose of an objection to a proposed statement of decision is not to reargue the merits, but to bring to the court's attention inconsistencies between the court's ruling and the document that is supposed to embody and explain that ruling" (italics added)].) Accordingly, we conclude that R.W. did not forfeit his contention that the trial court erred in determining the date of marriage to be in 2009 by failing to raise this issue in his objections to the trial court's proposed statement of decision.

         We also reject R.W.'s suggestion that he was not on notice that the date of marriage issue would be decided at trial. R.W. supports this contention by asserting that G.C.'s petition and R.W.'s amended response both "alleged the date of marriage to be 2004." R.W. argues that "[therefore] the date of marriage really was not formally at issue in the operative pleading." R.W.'s argument fails for two reasons. First, G.C.'s petition stated that the date of marriage was "02/03/09, " not "2004." Second, the pleadings described in part III.A.2, ante, make it abundantly clear that R.W. had notice that the date of marriage would be, as R.W. stated in his request for a statement of decision, one of the "controverted issues" at trial.

         b. The trial court properly concluded that the parties' 2004 New Jersey domestic partnership is not substantially equivalent to a California domestic partnership and thus, did not provide the applicable date of union for their dissolution[11]

         R.W. contends that the trial court erred in determining that the 2004 New Jersey domestic partnership did not provide the date of union for purposes of this dissolution proceeding.

         As quoted above, section 299.2 provides, "A legal union of two persons of the same sex, other than a marriage, that was validly formed in another jurisdiction, and that is substantially equivalent to a domestic partnership as defined in this part, shall be recognized as a valid domestic partnership in this state regardless of whether it bears the name domestic partnership."

         The text of the statute suggests that to be "recognized as a valid domestic partnership in this state"-and thus subject to dissolution under section 299-a nonmarital same sex legal union must be "substantially equivalent to a domestic partnership as defined in this part."[12] The Act does not elaborate with respect to the meaning of the phrase "substantially equivalent, " and we are not aware of any case law addressing this issue. However, the statutory text suggests that the Legislature intended to recognize unions formed under the laws of another jurisdiction that are substantively comparable to domestic partnerships as defined under the Act, even if the union is referred to by another name under the other jurisdiction's law. Commentators agree with this interpretation. (California Domestic Partnerships and Same-Sex Marriage (Cont.Ed.Bar 1st ed. 2017) § 1.17 [in discussing section 299.2, stating, "Although the various jurisdictions may call the same-sex relationship by different names, the substance of the rights, benefits, and privileges, not the name of the institution, controls"]; Hogoboom & King, Cal. Practice Guide: Family Law (The Rutter Group 2007) [¶] 20:233 (Hogoboom) ["Arguably, the out-of-state legal union is not of 'substantial equivalence' within the meaning of the [Act] if the law under which it was formed does not extend to the partners substantially the same substantive rights and responsibilities (property rights, debt liability, partner support, etc.) afforded domestic partners under the [Act]"]; William C. Duncan, Survey of Interstate Recognition of Quasi-Marital Statuses (2005) 3 Ave Maria L.Rev. 617, 626 [quoting section 299.2 and stating, "California's approach is to treat quasi-marital statuses as domestic partnerships" (italics added)].)

         Our interpretation is supported by a consideration of the "ostensible objects to be achieved, " by the adoption of section 299.2. (Acqua Vista, supra, 7 Cal.App.5th at p. 1140.) At the time the Act was adopted, the laws of many states were changing with respect to the types of legal statuses into which same-sex couples could enter, with a corresponding variety of names for the statuses being recognized. (See generally, Stein, The Topography of Legal Recognition of Same-Sex Relationships (2012) 50 Fam. Ct. Rev. 181 (Stein).)[13] Section 299.2 ensures that a union is subject to dissolution under California law so long as the union had the same quasi-marital status under the foreign jurisdiction's law as a California domestic partnership has under the Act, no matter the nomenclature used by the other jurisdiction in describing that union.

         This interpretation is bolstered by an examination of other provisions of the Act. (See Acqua Vista, supra, 7 Cal.App.5th at p. 1140 [in interpreting a statute a court is to consider " ' " ' "context in which the language appears" ' " ' "].) As the Court of Appeal in Velez v. Smith (2006) 142 Cal.App.4th 1154, 1165 (Velez) observed, "The declarations that accompanied the enactment of [the Act] left no doubt of the legislative intent to greatly expand the rights and responsibilities of properly registered domestic partners." (See id. at pp. 1163-1165 [outlining the history of domestic partnerships under California law]; see § 297.5 [stating that registered domestic partners shall have the same rights and obligations as spouses].)In enacting the Act, the Legislature also made clear its intent that those individuals who had previously registered in California as domestic partners would be provided with notice of the impending change to the legal nature of their partnership, and given an opportunity to terminate the partnership prior to the change in the law. (§ 299.3.)

         Interpreting section 299.2 as evincing the Legislature's intent to recognize a union formed in another jurisdiction for purposes of dissolution under section 299 so long as the union is substantively comparable to a domestic partnership formed under the Act is consistent with the Legislature's intent both to recognize such unions as equivalent to marriage for purposes of dissolution and to ensure that individuals in such relationships have notice that their union will be treated as having quasi-marital status for purposes of California dissolution law. In contrast, to recognize a relationship not having quasi-marital status under the jurisdiction in which the relationship was formed as nevertheless having such status under California law would be incongruous with the Legislature's intent in enacting section 299.3 to ensure that individuals were aware of the "binding effect of the impending momentous changes in the legal consequences of a legally recognized domestic relationship." (Velez, supra, 142 Cal.App.4th at p. 1168.)[14]

         R.W.'s arguments to the contrary are not persuasive. R.W. asserts that section 299.2 should be interpreted as providing that "a domestic partnership in another state is 'substantially equivalent' to a domestic partnership in California if it is a union of two persons of the same sex, " and contends that a "polygamous union" in another jurisdiction would thus not be recognized as " 'substantially equivalent, ' " under section 299.2. Section 299.2 expressly states that only a "legal union of two persons of the same sex, " that is "substantially equivalent" to a California domestic partnership shall be recognized under section 299.2. (Italics added.) Thus, polygamous unions are not recognized under section 299.2 by virtue of the statute's reference to a "legal union of two persons." (Italics added.) R.W.'s interpretation of section 299.2 is unpersuasive since it gives no effect to the words "substantially equivalent" (§ 299.2) in the statute. (See, e.g., Riverside County Sheriff's Dept. v. Stiglitz (2014) 60 Cal.4th 624, 630 [" ' "Whenever possible, significance must be given to every word [in a statute] in pursuing the legislative purpose, and the court should avoid a construction that makes some words surplusage" ' "].)

         R.W. also notes that, pursuant to section 297, subdivision (a) domestic partners are defined as " 'two adults who have chosen to share one another's lives in an intimate and committed relationship of mutual caring, ' " and contends that, "[s]o long as the domestic partnership law of New Jersey defines domestic partners similarly, a New Jersey domestic partnership must be 'substantially equivalent, ' to a California domestic partnership." (Italics added.) Section 299.2 provides for the recognition of an out-of-state "legal union, " that is "substantially equivalent to a [California] domestic partnership." (Italics added.) Thus, recognition under the statute turns on whether domestic partnerships are substantially equivalent under New Jersey and California law, not whether domestic partners are defined similarly in the two jurisdictions. With respect to the former issue, which we view as the decisive factor in determining whether the out-of-state union may be ...


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