Putative Spouses and Wrongful Death Claims

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On September 8, 2013, the California Supreme Court will hear arguments in a very important matter entitled Ceja v. Rudolph & Sletten, Inc.  The issue is whether an individual, who wrongfully, but in good faith, believes that she is married to another individual, is entitled to bring a wrongful death action on behalf of that individual in the circumstance of his or her death.

 
In this case, Nancy Ceja legally married—or thought she had legally married—Robert Ceja nearly four years before his death.  There was a formal wedding ceremony, she wore a white dress, and they had even obtained a marriage license in advance.  She changed her last name to Ceja, they lived together, wore wedding rings, held themselves out to be husband and wife, and shared a joint checking account.

 
But then, after Mr. Ceja was killed, she discovered that his prior marriage had not been formally dissolved until one month AFTER their own wedding, making their marriage legally invalid.

 

When Ms. Ceja brought her action in the California trial courts, the court held that she did not have the proper “standing” to bring a lawsuit on her “husband’s” behalf, finding that she was not the legal spouse or even “putative spouse” of Mr. Ceja because she did not have an objectively reasonable belief in the validity of the marriage.   (A “putative spouse” refers to 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.)   The court found that her belief in the marriage, given all of the facts surrounding the marriage, was not objectively reasonable, and on that basis, voided any claims that she may have had on behalf of Mr. Ceja.

 
The case was appealed by Mrs. Ceja to the Sixth Circuit, who essentially said, “Not so fast, trial court.”   The Sixth Circuit, looking to the strict language of the wrongful death statute, C.C.P. 377.60(b), held that the statute did not contain any language requiring an “objectively reasonable” good faith belief in the validity of the marriage.  Rather, the nature of a good faith belief, the Sixth Circuit determined, lies within the subjective thoughts of the person who harbors the belief.

 
Now, the question for the Supreme Court is whether a “good faith belief” in the validity of a marriage must be an objectively reasonable one (i.e., what an objectively reasonable person would believe) or a subjectively reasonable one (i.e., what that person believed regardless of what a hypothetically objective person would think).

 
This decision will undoubtedly have wide ranging implications on many different fronts.  Among other things, if the Supreme Court rejects and overrules the decision of the Sixth Circuit, it will have the effect of eliminating the rights of claimants even where that person believes he or she did everything right to enter into a valid marriage.  That even if they live for years as devoted “husband and wife”, that a mere technicality that a hypothetically “objective” person might know about, could serve to invalidate any rights of the surviving spouse.

 

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