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Good faith belief may not be enough for legal marriage

The California state Supreme Court is currently reviewing whether a spouse who has a good faith belief that she is married, possessed a marriage license and was listed as the wife in her husband's obituary can exercise marital rights even though there is no technically-valid marriage under state law. The Court's decision, concerning the spouse's wrongful death lawsuit, may impact many family law issues in this state.

The spouse in this case obtained a marriage license and married her husband in a ceremony before hundreds of friends in 2003. However, her husband's divorce from his first wife was not final under California law. His divorce papers were still within the state's waiting period and the divorce was not legally final until three months after his wedding to his second wife. He lived with his second wife for two years after he left his first wife and had joint custody of his children.

The husband, an ironworker, died in a construction accident four years after his second marriage. A wrongful death action was filed against the husband's employer by his second wife. The company sought to dismiss the second wife's lawsuit. It argued that she did not have the standing to file the suit as his legal spouse because they were married before the divorce to his first wife was final.

The spouse argued that she had a good-faith belief that she was married and the couple held themselves out as being married. The company claims that allowing a "good faith belief" to validate a marriage would be poor public policy and would allow couples to circumvent California's legal marriage requirements.

A Santa Clara County judge ruled in favor of the construction company. Two years ago, a state appeals court reversed this decision and ruled that the wife is entitled to take her wrongful death action to court if she honestly and genuinely believed that her marriage was valid. The company appealed to the California Supreme Court.

Questions concerning the validity of marriages and the rights of domestic partners in California could impact other important family legal issues such as spousal support, child support, adoption and custody. Legal advice should be sought concerning divorce and marital rights to assure a spouse's rights are legally protected.

Source: Contra Costa Times, "California Supreme Court case: When 'I do' may not be enough," Howard Mintz, May 6, 2013

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