California Supreme Court Deciding Unusual Spousal Rights Case

Spousal Rights in CaliforniaSometimes in this blog, we like to highlight notable or unusual family law cases. This week, we want to talk about an unusual case that currently being reviewed by the California Supreme Court.

The California Supreme Court is currently mulling the unusual legal situation of Nancy Ceja, a San Jose woman who is seeking the right to press a wrongful-death lawsuit over her late husband’s 2007 workplace death at a Peninsula construction company.

The unusual part about the case is that Nancy and her husband Robert were apparently not legally married, even though they secured a marriage license and had a large wedding ceremony in 2003.

However, what the couple did not seem to realize is that Robert’s divorce to his previous wife was not yet final, and the divorce papers were in the California waiting period.  The divorce did not actually become final until about 4 months after their wedding. So the couple was never legally married in the 4 years they spent together until Robert died in a work-related accident at a Peninsula construction company in 2007.

Robert’s employer, Rudolph & Setten, argues that Nancy does not have a right to sue because she was not a legal spouse. Nancy maintains that she had no reason to ever believe her marriage was invalid. She had a large wedding, changed her name, wore a wedding ring, and helped with Robert’s two children from the previous marriage. Nancy Ceja’s lawyer stated the couple would have simply redone the marriage ceremony if they ever had an idea they weren’t legally married.

Two years ago, a San Jose appeals court reinstated her lawsuit after a trial judge had barred her from pressing the claim and her case is now in front of the California Supreme Court, which appears reluctant to strip legal rights from spouses who truly believe they are married, even though technically their paperwork may not be correct as per state law.

Several justices expressed concern that such an absolute position could punish people who have an “honest and “sincere” belief their marriage is legally valid, and undermine a state doctrine known as “putative spouse” that is designed to protect against mistakes.

It certainly does seem that the Cejas met every definition of marriage in California, so the question comes down to whether spousal rights apply to a woman who in good faith believed she was married, but due to a technicality was not.

We tend to agree with the state appeals court that reinstated Nancy Ceja’s case two years ago.  They said she should be entitled to take her claims to trial if “she honestly and genuinely believed her marriage was valid.”

To further complicate the decision, however, a 1988 state Supreme Court decision appears to make it tougher for someone in her position to retain spousal rights. If in fact, the California Supreme Court rules in favor of Nancy Ceja, they will need to erase that precedent.

What are your thoughts on this case? Should Nancy Ceja be allowed to pursue a wrongful death suit as the wife of her deceased husband, even though they technically weren’t married?

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